Dillu & Raziya
Nuz & Faiz
Dobby apna star
D paida hote hi star kid Zaidu Miyan
Asad smiled as he saw Zoya's name flash on his phone. He clicked the call on eagerly.
"Asad! I got the flag charms you sent. They're beautiful! And just perfect! I'll show you when we chat at night--your time," she rushed, her words a babbling brook tripping over time-polished pebbles.
"I have to go. Talktoyoutonight!" The happiness decibels in her voice made his arms hurt.
Asad looked the dead phone in his hand. She was gone; the ache remained.
It was late, Or early--must be afternoon there. He looked at the clock on the side table. 4:07 am.
She must've forgotten the time difference in her excitement.
Asad lay back down and crossed his arms behind his head. Damn, he was wide awake now. He rose to offer his morning prayers and get the day started.
He arrived at work earlier than usual these days much to his staff's fright. Were they expected to come in as early too?
But Asad seemed more preoccupied than before, never really prickly, or strict with any one so they went about their regular routine. Only Prasad seemed attuned to his absent-mindedness and strange inertia. He did try to come early even though Asad urged him not to.
"Then, you must leave early too," he told an obdurate Prasad. "Spend more time with your family. It's an order," he added to end all protests.
Work had halted at one of the sites thanks to the ongoing crises. A chilly peace had descended on the industry in the wake of the economic downturn and its dark aftershocks.
And nothing was normal no more.
Everyone knew that the inaction was a mere veneer of calm. Underneath it, everything bubbled and simmered angrily ... as if weary snipers bided on never-ending vigils in their nests. The wait for something to change seemed to never end; the other shoe seemed to never drop. And yet they waited for it to drop every day. Invisible bull's eyes and crosshairs marked each player. Page 3 parties dripped with unease--laced with a dose of ricin.
Asad pushed back from his chair and rose to glare at the street below from his window. He hated this standstill--it went against every fiber of his being and yet he had to toe the line.
He raked an impatient hand through his hair.
Restless energy poured off him. He felt suspended in mid-stream--as if he was punching his sandbag underwater. Everything was in slow motion and his fist never connected. There was nothing to do here and he still needed to be here. He wanted to be with his family so bad but he still needed to be here. Morale. He needed to keep up employee morale in these days of corporate fret.
A fist pounded the wall next to the window; a picture rattled in its frame.
He turned back to his desk and exhaled.
Zaid's palm swatted his cheek.
Asad squeezed his eyes shut.
Zaid's bright giggles mingled with Zoya's. Her breath fanned his neck. They were in his arms ... her perfume in his breath, his son's lashes fluttering against his cheek after a sloppy wet kiss ...
Instant zenness flooded him.
Asad felt himself calm down and decompress. His fingers relaxed. And a new energy zipped through him. He removed Zoya's shayari notes from his wallet and re-read them one by one. The urge to write to her rippled through him. He was done with postcards this time around. He didn't know how long they'd take to get to her and god knows who would touch or read them. Instead he flipped the yellow legal pad open to a fresh page and hand-wrote a Rumi quote:
I am ashamed
To call this love human,
And afraid of God
To call it divine."
Asad took a photograph of this note and sent it to her mail, message, instagram, facebook and Whatsapp. He just had to be sure she'd get it. And then he sat at his desk to compose a long letter to his son. He'd slip it into the Baby Book and email a copy to Zoya so that she could read it out to Zaid--as many times as possible.
He was woken up in the middle of the night again but this time by a set of messages buzzing on his phone.
Asad grinned at the photo she'd sent back.
She must've printed out his note to do this. She'd sent a picture of his note with lipstick marks of a kiss on it next to his words. And under it she'd hand-written her reply:
"You have breathed new life into me
I have become your sunshine
and also your shadow."
Zoya must have obviously researched the lines he's sent her because these lines were from the same poem by Rumi. Asad ran his thumb over the screen to touch the words and re-read them.
Sunshine ... and shadow ...
His heart knocked in his chest.
It hadn't escaped his notice that she was trying to be extra cheerful these days for him.
He just hoped that his dour mood wasn't casting a chill on all the fun she could have been having with friends and family and visiting old haunts. As alien as America was to him it was her home after all. He better keep his Akduness under wraps. Only two weeks more. He could survive. They'd be home soon and everything would be all right.
The other photo she'd sent, showed her bracelet now sporting the American and Indian flag charms next to all the others.
Asad frowned. There seemed to be a forlornness in that image of the bracelet on her thin wrist; it sat on her skin in heavy doom.
Earlier he was planning to send her a picture of one of her own notes to him from when he was in Hyderabad--a perfect quote from Neruda. It echoed her yearning then; it would be his now:
"... so I wait for you like a lonely house
till you will see me again and live in me.
Till then my windows ache."
But no. He wouldn't send her this one right now. Too real. And too crushing. That separation had been short--only 2 days. This one was an eternity by comparison. Nor would he send the lines from Zauq that he was planning to, earlier:
"Shola-e-aah ko bijli ki tarah chamkaun
Par mujhe dar hai, ki woh dekh kar dar jayenge ..."
Not today. Was she weighing herself down with his misery? He'd talk to her first about not being a martyr who oversmiled for his benefit. He needed her to keep being his Jhansi ki Rani.
He had guessed right. But what Asad didn't know was that Zoya had struggled with composing her reply to his latest note. She wanted to add words, lines and stanzas for the charm bracelet that now displayed the twin flags. She'd even written some lines but then she crumpled up the piece of paper and threw it away. But later she fished it from the trash and smoothed it out to add to her collection. May be she'd give it to Asad when she was back in India.
It bared her ache too much for now and she wasn't willing to share it yet. It could wait. What was it someone had said once: Write from scars not wounds ... ? Yes, this was still a wound--too raw. Let it heal first.
And she had vowed to herself after all that she wouldn't bring Asad down. She re-read her note before folding it carefully and adding it to the pile of postcards and tying them up with a silk ribbon. It was a messy memo--too many words crossed out and re-written. She had spent hours on it. But it revealed a darkness she'd been stuffing inside herself all these days:
Me and you, you and me ...
Both stars and stripes ... and the tricolor bars and wheel ...
They lie when they say that love knows no borders, passports, flags or visas.
They wrap fallen soldiers in flags too ...
But that felt all too morbid and over the top to her. That's why she'd discarded the note. Zoya knew that Asad had sent the charms as a token of her blended nationalities. And Zaid's. America and India were the two sides of her coin. And Zaid's. But somehow her mind's deadness couldn't see the sunshine of those tokens as yet. Only the shadows crept closer ...
She wanted to say so much more about the gaping distance between them, the miles and miles of land and oceans that stretched between them because of their nationalities ... but somehow the words were jammed up in her mind like a car sunk into a rut. No matter how much she spun the wheels it wouldn't move forward.
Time's treadmill was ceaseless; the universe's wink too unrelenting.
In the end she decided to only send Rumi's quote appended to his own note. The second photo of the silent charms hid the cavity of her soul--whom could she tell that she felt neither American nor Indian right now. She felt ... she felt hollow. Unlike Goldilocks, nothing felt just right. In fact, it was all just wrong.
Meanwhile her oblivious bracelet was garnering many looks and smiles wherever Zoya went. There were curious questions as they waited in lines to sightsee; raised eyebrows at the handcuffs; oohs, ahs and awws at all of the Zaid-related keepsakes.
Naz had ordered charm bracelets for all the moms and girls. They'd all trooped to the Mall to pick out favorite charms. And at the rate hers was filling up, Zoya would be needing a new one too.
In the next few days they went to the usual New York City hot spots: Empire State Building--they would watch "An Affair to Remember" and "Sleepless in Seattle" for a late-night movie marathon to relive the landmark's romantic Hollywood glory.
They took dozens of pouty selfies at Times Square. They paid quiet homage at the September 11 Memorial. They strolled through Central Park and rode the carriages at dusk.
The shops on fifth Avenue were Masha'allah! Zaid was kept snug in his baby carrier as he ga-gaed and goo-gooed at people who smiled at him and high-fived him. His stroller was a lifesaver for when he took exhausted naps in between and perfect for hanging shopping bags.
And then there was the Statue of Liberty. Zee Nani bought Zaid a green foam crown and sweatshirt so that he could look just like a mini Statue of Liberty. His Nanis and Dadis and Phuphis and Khalas couldn't resist taking dozens of pictures with this miniature Statue of Liberty. Instagrams and snapchats and whatsapps were clogged with Zaidpics. In a jiffy they had amassed a bajillion likes and faves.
When he asked his mom who Statue of Liberty was, his mom told him that she was like Jhansi ki Rani"a protector of freedom. She watched over people who were being hurt by bad guys and welcomed them to a safe haven in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Zaid liked Stachoo of Wibety a lot. She sounded cool. And now that he had the crown and shirt he, Ammi, and Abbu could act out the story for bedtime. But where was Abbu? When would he see him?
Why wasn't he here?
Would he never--?
"Zaid, what happened baby?" Ammi asked.
And Zaid's lip stuck out; his face crumpled.
He pulled at his green crown to throw it off, ducked his head into his mom's neck and ... hollered.
Zoya hugged him tight. She'd already changed him and he'd pigged out on on half a frozen chocolate banana so this was about something else. She rubbed his tiny back in circles. "What happened, honey? Tell mama," she soothed.
" ... Bbbuuu," he sobbed.
"Aww mera baby, you're missing Abbu!" Her eyes stung. What a terrible mother she was for separating father and child! Zoya cuddled him closer as she brushed her helpless cheek against his head in apology. "I'm so sorry," she whispered in his ear.
She smiled weakly when Dilshad patted her shoulder and gently removed Zaid from her arms. Everyone hovered around them in concern. Humaira hugged Zoya sideways noting her teary distress.
"Kya hua Zaid ko?" Rashid asked the question at everyone's lips.
"Zaid is missing his Abbu," Dilshad told them as she wiped her grandson's tears. "Abbu also misses you, you know?" she asked him.
He looked at his Dadi in confusion. How did she know? Had she met Abbu? Today?
"Yes, he does! Every day, so much!" she spread her free arm. "More than this much."
Najma held her mother's hand and spread out her other arm toward the sky. "Even more than this much!"
Rashid held Najma's hand and made the arc wider. "Even more than this much!" The others linked their hands too making the circle of his Abbu's love stronger and even bigger. Zaid's eyes widened. He seemed to forget that he was crying a minute ago. Abbu loved him and missed him this much?
"He told me to tell you a secret," Dilshad said softly in his ear.
Zaid's eyes brightened as he waited for his Dadi to tell him more about Abbu's secret message. His Ammi had already read him Abbu's letter this morning. Two times.
"Abbu told me to tell you that when Zaid misses me tell him I love him and that I'm singing his favorite song."
The little boy grinned and clapped his hands. "Nnnddd gi ki hree thi?"
"Yes!" everyone cheered. Najma took him from Dilshad's arms and handed Zaid to Rashid.
"Abbu, sing for him."
And with the Statue of Liberty receding behind them on the ferry Zaid sang along with his family. "Zindagi ki yahi reet hai," everyone sang. And he knew all the words too! Well almost.
When he went back into his mom's arms he was happy again. Zoya pointed at the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
"See, she's saying, bye! Say bye!" He waved at Lady Liberty. "Give her a flying kissy." He did. Many, many times over. Stachoo of Wiberty reminded him of Abbu. She would watch over Abbu and keep him safe. Just like Abbu watched over him and kept him safe.
Zoya kissed the top of his head. But a jagged piece of ice wedged deeper into her heart. Her baby crying for his father had undone her as nothing else ever could. She squeezed her eyes shut and recalled Asad's letter to Zaid. She had it memorized by now:
My Dearest Zaid,
I am writing to you from home in Bhopal, India. You are so far away from me right now--more than 12,314 kilometers! That would be like Abbu going to office and coming back every day for a whole year. That's how far you are from me.
And I miss you so much. It's a whole year's worth of missing you. I can't wait to see you soon. Just 14 more days to go before I see you and hold you!
(Asad knew that Zoya would count off the numbers on his tiny fingers, making his letter as interactive as possible).
You know what I miss the most? I miss your little fingers against my cheek as I hold you in my arms. (He knew Zoya would kiss each fingertip and his son would gurgle with delight). I miss your eyes as they sparkle like stars (by now Zaid recognized his facial features. Asad knew he would touch his own eyes when Zoya read this out to him), your button nose (he'd next touch his nose) the hundreds of kisses you give me in a day. And I miss your giggles and laughter (he knew Zoya would tickle Zaid at this part to make him giggle and laugh).
Dobby feels the same way. He sends you lots of furry kissies--one for each day you've been away. Chhoti Nani is waiting to give you ghee-badam maalish and Nanu promises to tell you more about Harry at Hogwarts. Chachu is glum too. He misses his champ and best bud. He has lots of Zaid Miyan and Dobby Miya-oon stories waiting for you.
You are in my heart (he knew Zoya would draw a circle on Zaid's heart at this point) and thoughts (another circle at his temple). Clap each time you think of Abbu (and he knew Zaid would clap at this part). Abbu loves you from your head to your shoulders, knees and down to your toes (Zoya would walk her fingers from his head and shoulders to knees, and then tickle his feet). Abbu misses those perfect little toes the most. I will bite them and eat them up when we meet again (Zoya would mime the action for him, Asad was sure of it, and Zaid would squeal in delight).
Lots of love and kisses and the loudest raspberry (Zoya would blow on his stomach at which he'd giggle and squirm) for my tiger (Zaid would growl for sure),
Zoya swiped the moisture from her eyes furtively. She loved that letter and knew that Zaid did too. And as he grew older their son would realize its worth more and more with each passing year.
Thank you, Asad.
When Zaid wasn't missing his Abbu he was having a lot of fun. He went to the park everyday with Nani and Dadi when they weren't sightseeing. The baby swing was such fun! Allah miyan, there was a sandbox! The zoo at Central park was MA! He even got to feed a goat. At the mega toy stores his Ammi went crazier than him. Zaid had loved to watch the other kids more. So many babies like him! And so many big kids! When would he be a big kid? When would he walk and run? He squirmed and wiggled so much that Zoya had to set him down in the baby play area. Zaid zoomed off to hang with other rugrats to erect skyscrapers with mega bulding blocks. He was going to be an architect like his Abbu!
Zoya spent time catching up with friends. She retold her grand Indian adventures so many times over but her friends never tired of the stories.
"You found your birth father AND a sister? How cool!"
"And Mr. Right? Un-freaking-believable!"
"Who knew that all your dreams were waiting for you all these years in India?"
"Honeymoon on the Palace of Wheels? Do all Indians live in palaces and ride elephants? But dude, in Slumdog Millionaire' there were so many poor people."
"Your mother-in-law lives with you? Whoa! What's that like?"
"Handcuffed to a guy and you hated each other? You're making this sh*it up!"
Her friends fell head over heels in love with Zaid and spoiled him rotten. Of course, he got even more gifts.
Allah miyan, there were just too many gifts.
She was not going to be able to take them back with her. So Zoya decided she'd donate them to the Children's Hospital that Aapi volunteered at.
Not that Zaid would miss them. Like Dobby, he liked the boxes and packaging better than the toys themselves. Anwar Nanu had built him a fort by taping and shaping a bunch of cardboard boxes together.
He'd done the same for his mom when she was a little girl--except it had been a princess castle then. When Zaid wasn't helping his grandmothers cook he liked to crawl in and out of his fort playing hide and seek with Nanu, Dobby and all his imaginary friends. He was in the process of coloring its walls with crayons (when he wasn't eating the crayons, that is). One day they'd even found him sleeping in there curled up like Dobby.
In a sudden burst of inspiration Najma Phuphi had offered to buy her favorite nephew a drum set. While Zoya leaped excitedly, Dilshad and Zeenat glared her down.
"He makes enough noise playing with my pots and pans at home," Zeenat said. "Buy him one when he comes to visit you in your house."
Of all the gifts he got, Zaid soon tired of them. Only the red plane he slept with at night.
But on one of his many crawling adventures he discovered kitchen cabinets! And since then he liked to help his Nani and Dadi cook. He hummed and banged. And he helped the food get made. The louder he hummed, the better it tasted. Everybody gave him credit for the aloo muttar and koftas. He banged extra loud for the kheer.
Zoya sighed and then her eyes lit up. "Aapi, what about my drum set? I hope you haven't given it away!"
"Ya Allah," Zeenat re-glared at Najma who sniggered. "Why did you have to remind her," she muttered.
"It's still in the garage, baba." She turned to Dilshad. "I wanted to give it away but Anwar wouldn't let me. When she was 15 she and her friends wanted to start a garage band. Itna shor! Summers, the neighbors would shut their windows and look at me with great pity."
Zoya grinned, "c'mon Aapi, we weren't so bad."
"The only thing you kids ever got good at was singing happy birthday."
"Hey, not fair. We were pretty good at Jai ho!' too."
"And we sang at Payal's sister's sangeet, remember?"
"Please, that was a pity booking. My friend felt sorry for you," Zeenat sassed right back.
"We were awesome and you all loved us. Stop lying, Aapi!"
Zeenat nodded. "OK fine, you were cute." Thank god for the karaoke machine otherwise thanks to Zoya, her friends would've banned her from all parties! She winked at Dilshad who laughed.
"Come Tamatar, let's go explore the garage! I'll show you my ice skates."
Zoya wanted to treat the girls at Max Brenner, the Chocolate Bar and Restaurant where all the food was basically different combinations of chocolate. The moms declined--"Na baba, too much sugar. Tum log jao!"
Of course the moms had been right. The girls loaded up on so many chocolate pizzas, sundaes, fondues and waffles that they waddled around in a sugar shock for the rest of the day.
No dance practice that day.
Yes, there was all that practice they needed for their dance at Nikhat and Feroze's reception. It was great to see Nikhat with Feroze, Najma with Omar and Nuzzhat with Faiz. But both Zoya and Humaira missed their husbands terribly. It gave them new respect for how Nikhat and Najma must've felt without their husbands for all those terrible months. How'd they do it? Zoya felt guilty for moping but she couldn't help it. Keeping a cheerful front for Asad and everyone else was taking its own toll on her.
Memories ran like color ... those memories drew blood.
"Iss se achcha toh main New York mein hi thi!" She'd yelled at Asad on their first meeting when he'd nearly run her over. Oh boy, she'd been a hot mess that day.
Zoya smiled at the memory of the day that changed her life forever--changed her address, made her leave New York far behind in another hemisphere. Only she didn't know it that day. That day she'd been so mad at the 17th century Jahanpanah who had stepped out of his time machine to quote from his Tehzeebpedia--aurat, sharm, gehna etc. etc.
Jeez. That day Mr. Khan had come pretty close to being anointed with some choice Jhansi ki Rani pepper spray.
But Asad hadn't backed down one bit. He was equally furious at her behaya and badtameez words.
"Agar aapko iss mulk se itni problem hai toh wapas New York kyun nahi chali jaati? Bada ehsaan hoga aapka iss mulk par!" Asad had thundered right back.
Oh really? "Excuse me! Aap koi traffic police hain jo mujhe bataenge ki mujhe kahan jana chahiye!"
A week later she'd ended up in his bed--from which of course he had forcibly ejected her.
"Main iss kamre mein pehle aayi thi toh yeh kamra mera hua. New York mein aisa hi hota hai!" she had tried to use a purely illogical arugment against him. She knew she'd been in the wrong but was she gonna let him know it? Na anh!
"Yeh apka New York nahin hai, mera kamra hai," he'd ground out through gritted teeth. If she didn't know any better, Asad had come pretty close to hating New York right then.
"Your arms used to feel like home. Now I'm homesick."
Zoya woke up in the middle of night from a dream of smoky shadows and cracked glass. For a frozen heartbeat she felt Asad's arms around her and then the earth had opened up under her feet; she was falling off a cliff. Her scream sounded loud to her ears but was really just an anguished croak.
Zoya sat up with a start in the dark, hand clutched to her racing heart.
That hilltop had looked too familiar. Hadn't they taken Zaid there the night before they were to leave for America?
"Your arms used to feel like home. Now I'm homesick."
Who had said those words? Was it her? Or was it Asad, just before her hand slipped from his? Zoya gulped down the water from the glass at her nightstand. She turned to place a hand on Zaid's heart. He was sleeping, thank god, arms thrown up, lips slightly parted, lids and lashes half-moons of slumbering innocence.
She leaned over to kiss his forehead more for her own than his. Zoya rested her forehead against her son's.
Why was sleep tormenting her these days? When it came in bursts and starts it dragged with it haunting traces of incomplete touches and unpaired sighs. What she thought was a stubbled cheek was just a book she'd fallen asleep on. A muscled chest was just the sofa arm ... a warm breath just the heating vent on at night. That slow smile that made her want to tear her clothes off ... was just a sliver of moonlight. When she reached her hand out to touch those familiar lips they grasped thin air.
All these years growing up she'd slept alone and whole in this bed. Then why now did she feel so incomplete, so fractured? It wasn't as if she was nothing without Asad. She would hate herself if she became one of those women who couldn't define themselves without their husband or his name. She wasn't one of those uber-dependent or fragile women made of crystal either. Then why in hell did she miss him so damn much? For twenty two years of her life she'd managed to sleep without him pressed against her back and holding her. For twenty two years of her life she'd managed to go to sleep without feeling the need to put her hand on his chest to feel it rise and fall and know that all was right with the world.
All this tossing and turning was making her mad. And it was making her burn. In frustration she rolled on her back and dug her heels into the sheets.
... Just like she did when Asad covered her body with his--
She imagined him on top of her, inside her. She imagined crossing her legs possessively at his hips as he rocked them, controlling his thrusts as he stared into her eyes ... She saw the silhouetted arc of his muscled back and matched the rhythmic tempo of his hips ... she felt his hot breath on her neck as she pushed his hair off his forehead ... she heard his words of nasty promises and dirty oaths in her ear and moaned. She saw them roll over on his back and she watched herself ride him--her own back arched now, her breasts bouncing high ... him cupping them ... and she heard herself keen deep in her throat as she came in a rush.
Did he hear her screaming his name out in her head? Why didn't he call right away? Couldn't he touch her hot yearning? Feel it calling out to him? If he reached his arm out wouldn't he be able to grip her hair in his fist ... pull her face closer to his? Feel her lips with his ... run his tongue over them ... stroke her cheek and chin with a thumb ...?
Can't you feel my ache in your bones? Can't you hear my cries?
Asad, come to me! Please.
Fresh moisture pooled in the corner of her eyes and dripped down older tear tracks.
Zoya ran her hand over her charms to calm herself down. Her fingers read each charm from muscle memory. She passed each of them reverently between her thumb and forefinger. It was only after completing eight or nine laps did she fall into an exhausted sleep. This time her charmed bracelet managed to keep those jagged dreams from rising like Zombies through the fissures of her mind. This time her spent body crashed into temporary oblivion.
"Uncle, when is Zoya didi coming back?"
Asad smiled. He'd come home to get fresh clothes and this was the second time the street kids had asked him this question in the past 15 days.
It wasn't long after she'd come here from New York to live in the Khan house when Zoya had befriended these kids to play a rousing game of cricket every now and then--when she wasn't searching for her father or fighting with a certain Akdu dragon, that is. In those early days he used to frown in disapproval and righteous dismay whenever he came upon her running between wickets--hair flying, fist pumping, squealing like a champ. Even then he had felt reluctant admiration though he'd never admit it--even with a gun to his head.
Sh*it, he'd put a gun to her head.
How could he? He had no right to scare her like that. He'd never be able to get that image out of his head.
He'd even placed it against her cheek to threaten her. Good god, it was loaded; he'd checked. What if--? Were there bruises on her face the next day?
"Uncle, aren't you listening? When's she coming back?"
Initally these boys had scoffed at Zoya when she gave them pointers and asked to join in. Please, what did a girl know about cricket! But this was Zoya. She wasn't one to give up. She'd persisted . So they'd let her bowl to get rid of her. May be she'd see how lame she was and slink away when they all burst out laughing at her.
But she hadn't given them a chance to laugh at her. She was tough that way--and didn't he have the scars to prove it!
They'd watched, slack-jawed in awe at her form, at the grace of her movements. When as the wicket-keeper she caught two trick catches, she was golden. She had dived and ripped her jeans.
And like a certain Mr. Khan, they'd been floored and besotted too.
She became Zoya didi then. And because he continued to frown and scowl most of the time, Asad always remained uncle.'
During her pregnancy she couldn't play but she was an enthusiastic cheerleader and benefactor often treating them to ice cream or cotton candy. Over the past few months she'd re-joined them--not as often as she'd have liked but enough for them to consider her a part of the team.
"She'll be back in about 11-12 days," Asad told them. His own heart pitched at that announcement. Only 10 days left tomorrow. 9, the day after ... There were more days she'd been gone than for her to return. Thank you, Allah miyan!
"Yay," they cheered echoing his own sentiments. "Why don't they play cricket in America?" one of them asked.
"Because they're really backward over there!" Asad kidded.
They roared with laughter. Over the past few months they'd grown more comfortable with him. "Remind her to get us lots of chocolates," they threw over their shoulders as they raced off to play some more before their mothers called them in for dinner.
One boy hung back. "Tell her that she better get back for practice soon. We have a match with the Dilbagh Dabangs in three weeks."
It was cute how they now held 20-20 tournaments with kids from neighboring streets. That too had been Zoya's doing. She'd negotiated and managed them into teams with names that the boys had voted on. Their team was called the Shamla Sultans. The tournaments were becoming more and more professional, with parents now involved, websites, live scoreboards, rankings, uniforms, kits, reservations of local parks for matches on the weekends and pizza parties to celebrate victories or console losses.
During her pregnancy she'd roped in Asad to be the team coach whenever he had time. After much pleading and cajoling. As much as he pretended to growl at losing half a precious Sunday he secretly loved to play as much as she knew he did.
"Sure," he said to the boy distractedly.
"I tried your tips and they really worked," the boy, Milan, continued. "Can you show me more?"
"If you don't mind! I want to really improve my batting average."
Come to think of it, no, he didn't mind at all. As Asad changed out of his work clothes and later sat huddled between these sweaty kids, joy irradiated him.
The thwack of the ball hitting the bat dead-center was the purest music. Its glorious arc at the full-blooded hook, a symphony. This briefest of moments was exhilarating. Every heartache, every shard of longing fell away. Asad couldn't wait for Zaid to grow up so he could teach him how to play. He came alive as he put the boys through the training drills. Some of these he remembered from his own days of playing for school and college. Others he had researched more recently for Zoya who wanted to inject fun into the proceedings--but of course.
No please Allah miyan, not again!
By the end of week three Zoya was convinced that she was going insane.
Her overwrought and sleep-deprived mind had begun playing tricks on her. That afternoon at Macy's she had almost run after some random guy thinking it was Asad. He had a similar linen shirt, and the hair was familiar too. What if ...?
Allah miyan, what's wrong with you, she'd tried to talk herself out of making a giant fool of herself. Get a grip, Zoya. Asad is millions of miles away, 9 hours ahead of New York time. How could he possibly ...? But her mind yo-yoed from one improbable sigthing to another. Wait, was that ...?
Shopping was boring. She had come here only to give the girls company. Pretty soon she would just park herself at a Barnes and Noble and browse through a book. Zaid was dozing in his stroller--it was the perfect quiet time her soul craved. She told the girls where she'd be. They understood perfectly and shooed her away. By now everyone knew that dragging Zoya along for shopping was going to be a disaster. She was useless at telling them what looked good or didn't. She knuckle-dragged and made faces. By the 23rd minute she yawned and groaned and everyone just felt guilty.
At the bookstore Zoya was able to find just what she'd been craving. It had been ages since she read and laughed with a Stephanie Plum and Lula novel. Finally! She found an overstuffed chair in a secluded alcove and wheeled Zaid's stroller close. As Zoya settled in Zaid whimpered in his sleep. She put the book on the armrest and unbuckled him. May be she could hold him and read while he napped. She looked up and sucked air. Wait, didn't that guy stride just like ...?
Shut up, Zoya. Remember, he's 12,314 kilometers away? That's all of 7651.5 miles.
When the girls found her an hour and a half later they awwwed in hushed tones. Cameras went up to mass-click pictures of a snoozing mother and child. It was only by resting her cheek against Zaid's head, breathing in his baby smell, and feeling his little heart pumping away next to her that Zoya had found some semblance of a dreamless sleep. For an hour and half she had found escape from her own fevered imagination. For almost a full 90 minutes Asad's visions had taken a break from playing hide and seek with her.
For the reception Naz had outdone herself. The party hall was magnificient, or at least that's what everyone told Zoya breathlessly. Aapi had elbowed her in the ribs earlier. "Don't let everyone know how much you miss Asad. But don't, khuda ke vaste, do that terrible smile either. It kills me to look at you."
Anwar had hugged her sideways. "You don't need to listen to your Aapi. Be as miserable as you want to be. And when you need to run away for a good cry, I'll hold Zaid for you!"
"See, now there's that pretty smile we all love," Anwar teased. "You can do it, kiddo! Just remember our secret code and you'll be fine. JeejuMan will come to your rescue each time!"
Zoya laughed a real laugh then.
A long time ago Jeeju had made her swear to a pact. If he pulled at his left ear with his right hand at one of these parties that Zeenat dragged him to because otherwise, "sab sawaal karenge," then Zoya had to come up and complain about a stomachache or a twisted ankle so that he could take her home. It was the fourth time when Zeenat caught on to this little charade.
She'd been livid.
Only a lot of besura singing from Anwar and Zoya had got her to smile. Because if she didn't smile they wouldn't stop. And if they didn't stop she'd have to listen to that godawful song, "lal dupatte wali tera naam to bata," for hours and hours on end. With drums. No, thank you very much.
"So nice to hear you laughing again," Dilshad kissed Zoya's forehead. By force of habit she rubbed at some of her kajal and wiped it behind Zoya and Zaid's ears. "We thought you left those giggles behind in India with Mr. Khan!"
Zoya blushed--at being teased and because even Ammi had been able to see through her fake smiles. Damn, she was lousy at hiding her feelings. Too transparent, that was her. Though Asad would disagree. Those long sunless days before they were together she'd managed to hide her feelings for him pretty well from everyone. Except him. He'd been able to see those reddened eyes covered up with kohl, those smudges under them and the half-moon bruises on the backs of her hands. May be he'd seen those symptoms because her unspoken pain mirrored his own. But then he was the lucky one, wasn't he? He knew how she felt for him. But she didn't know that he loved her then. All she knew was that he had rejected her and was engaged to another.
Zoya's smile drooped.
Dilshad cupped her face. "C'mon now. You have no right to sulk or be down." She whispered soothing words in her daughter-in-law's ears as she had for her grandson a few days ago. "Asad must be missing you too. Even more, in fact! He's all alone by himself and missing out on all this fun." Dilshad waved her arm about to include the grandly appointed ballroom. When she saw Zoya's lips tremble she pinched her cheek. "Do you want everyone to sing to you like we did for Zaid, hmm?"
"No!" Zoya's mouth rounded in horror. Oh god, Allah miyan, she'd seriously burst into tears if they did that.
"Exactly. Besides there's only a week left--you'll survive. Now go, Najma's calling you for the dance. Lao, give Zaid to me. Come raja, come to Dadi. Ammi has to go and dance for Nikhat Phuphi."
The girls danced to a medley of songs. Naz and her friends danced too to many catcalls and much enthusiastic applause on a mix of old Hindi songs that was an instant hit. Even Feroze and Faiz's dad joined in to belt, "O meri zohra jabeen."
That had everyone on their feet demanding an encore.
"Once more, once more," they cheered. Omar wolf-whistled as his aunt and uncle did the twist to "Aao, twist karein."
Nikhat and Najma performed a surprise dance on "Sasural genda phool," that had all the moms tearing up. Naz bawled the loudest.
Dilshad and Shireen were thrilled to see their girls become a part of a close-knit family and even more delighted with the larger family of Indians that embraced them so far away from India. Already at the Sangeet and Mehendi they had met all of Naz, Hana and Zeenat's friends who told raunchy jokes and brought delicious and gorgeously decorated potluck dishes. The food tasted different in America but the sentiment behind it was pure India. Just MA!
The toasts were done. Faiz was the witty emcee often assisted by a rowdy Omar who narrated the story of how FerNi met and became Youtube sensations. They even played the video on the projector to Nikhat's embarrassment. The guests loved it! Feroze and Nikhat gave beautiful speeches thanking all their family that had flown in from different parts of the country and especially India. "We have one last performance for you and then let the real dancing begin," Feroze announced to whoops and yells from the younger guests.
Zaid had managed to fall asleep in his stroller despite the high volume of the music and cheers around him. It had been a long day. They had let him crawl his heart out at home and his mom hadn't let him have too long of an afternoon nap. He was pretty tuckered out by 8:30. Along with Dilshad, Zeenat and Anwar, Zoya and Humaira moved to a quieter corner of the room farthest away from the blaring speakers. They watched Nuzzhat mingle with Faiz's family--lots of cousins and friends. Aww, another one would fly the nest soon and then it would just be the two of them.
Anwar was all set to pull his disappearing act stunt; Zeenat glared at him. "Just this last performance. Then after dinner we can leave. This time you can use Zaid as a legitimate excuse, OK?"
He sighed but nodded in mute agreement. Fine, he'd behave.
"If Zoya and Humaira want to stay back longer they can," he added. "You can dance into the night like I know you kids like to." They had brought two cars just for this reason.
"Do we know who's dancing?" Humaira asked.
"Must be cousins from Feroze's side," Zoya answered as she checked for the blanket around Zaid's ears. The more she could muffle the sound the better he would sleep, poor baby. He really had gotten cranky at the end. The tiny sherwani itched ... he was tired but didn't want to sleep because of the fesitivities and overstimulation. Everyone came to pick him up, play with him, tickle or high-five him. They sqeezed his cheeks and kissed him senseless. The sherwani rode up, the pajamas weren't stretchy, and the dupatta tasted weird no matter how much he sucked on it. What was a boy to do if not cry? It was only crying that got him deposited back into his mom's arms as people nervously backed away to give them space. His Ammi had held him tight, tucked him into her body just right and walked him to sleep in the lawn outside. It was much quieter here. Through the faint music he had heard her humming close to his ear. He loved this song about a dragon named Puff. Ammi had told him that it was her favorite too when she was small. Zaid felt her drop at least twelve thousand kisses on his head for each kilometer he was away from Abbu and only then did he drift into sleep and dream of riding on Abbu's shoulders.
Once he was tucked back into his stroller Dilshad gently patted his chest. "Zoya, I think they've served dinner by now. Go get some food before he wakes up," she reminded her.
Zoya made a face. "I don't feel hungry, Ammi. May be later when everyone else eats."
Zeenat tsked. "Ya Allah, yeh ladki! You're not eating well these days. This isn't right. I'll tell Asad."
Anwar patted Zoya's hand but said nothing.
Zoya smiled as she saw a message light up on her phone. Asad! It was a sher he had chosen from Kaifi Azmi this time. She re-read it and frowned. It made no sense to her but hey, the words sure sounded nice:
"Rasta bhool gaya ya yahan manzil hai meri,
Koi laya hai ya khud aaya hun maalum nahin."
"What do you mean?" she texted back.
"I love you and am missing you like crazy," she texted a second message when she didn't hear back from him. She felt too depressed to add her usual emojis.
The music started up for the last number and then abruptly turned off. Zoya peered at the dark screen of her phone. C'mon, she willed it to buzz.
There were some technical glitches that seemed to have delayed the dance. The guests forgot about the promised performance. They chatted loudly. Laughter and happy shouts boomed through the hall. When the lights dimmed everyone looked expectantly at the stage. A fog machine bellowed great plumes of purple, green and blue fog--the theme colors of the evening.
"Suno ik thi kaanch ki gudiya," crooned the playback singer. The people at the front tables roared and clapped.
"... suno ik tha pind ka shera ..." the jaunty tempo picked up.
Zoya didn't even bother looking too hard at the stage. "There are two guys who just came on," Zeenat announced for everyone's benefit. No one paid attention to her. Anwar was checking his phone. Dilshad fussed over Zaid's blanket as she gently extracted the red plane from his grip.
"May be the girls will join them later," Humaira mused, equally distracted but trying to be polite in responding to Aapi because no one else had.
Zoya put her face against her palm with her elbow resting on the table.
This song ... it was so familiar. Her eyes half-closed. At Feroze and Nikhat's wedding back home Asad and Ayaan had danced to it as a surprise. She and Humaira had joined them at the refrain of "Jogi maahi heer ranjhana."
Girls were screaming at the front of the room. They too craned their necks to see what the big deal was. But their view was blocked. Najma and Nuzzhat had stood up and were cheering. Rashid was standing too and waving wildly.
"Jogi maahi heer ranjhana," the speakers thundered around her.
Funny, her mind was playing tricks on her again. She could have sworn she saw Asad--Nah! Idiot, how could he be here? You thought the same thing yesterday when you saw that guy at the mall. And then at the bookstore. May be Aapi is right. I should eat more so I don't go batsh*it crazy.
"Jogi maahi heer ranjhana
Sabnu jaake main ye bolna
Baat bolke ...
"ZOYA!" Najma came running. Zoya blinked at her. Her mind had closed up. May be she was having a stroke. Could it be low sugar?
"Allah miyan what's wrong with you?" Tamatar was yelling something at her and shaking her.
Zoya frowned. She looked at Humaira who seemed to be shrieking and jumping too. What? She watched, in slow motion as Humaira bolted toward the stage. Huh?
"Najma, stop shaking me."
"Zoya look," Najma twisted her face around. "It's Bhaijaan!"
"What nonsense!" Zoya grumbled. May be everyone else had gone mad too.
Impatient with Zoya's sluggish reflexes Najma grabbed her hand and dragged her toward the stage. Zoya looked back at Aapi and Ammi in confusion. They were grinning and clapping wildly. She looked more closely at that guy who had looked familiar.
She lifted her lehenga with both hands and ran blindly. People laughed and jumped out of her way. But she came to a crashing halt at the edge of the dance floor. Zoya reached her hand out towards him. That smile ... the purply-blue fog swallowed him up. When he reappeared he opened his arms to her.
And Zoya being Zoya ran in the opposite direction away from him.
She could hear him calling after her. She kept running, unseeing, out the double doors, down the stairs, into the brightly lit lawn. A half hour ago she'd walked the same lawn as she'd sung Zaid to sleep. Now she felt too raw and exposed. She wanted to crawl into and hide in some dark hole. May be if she hid behind that column ... it was then that she felt her wrist gripped as she was slammed into a hard chest.
"Zoya, babe what's wrong? It's me. Look at me."
She felt his solid arms around her. Surely this wasn't her imagination?
She really looked at him this time. She touched his cheek and flinched at the contact. He was real! And then, with tears raining from her eyes, she traced every beloved contour on that face she had missed so much. Like a blind scholar just introduced to Braille, she read his eyes, his nose, his cheeks, ears, lips and jaw with starved hands. She felt him kiss her fingertips and sobbed, "it's really you."
"Of course, it's me. Oh baby, I'm right here." Asad gathered her into his arms as she wept harder. "I'm never letting you walk or run away from me. Never again!"
He held her forever. God knows how much later Asad felt a tap on his shoulder. Zoya was still sobbing with her head buried in his chest.
A smiling but apologetic Dilshad came closer. She pinched his cheek in happy blessing. "He was starting to fuss." And she handed Zaid to his dad. Zaid rubbed his eyes and blinked them open. He saw his Abbu and blinked again.
"Hi baby," his Abbu said softly, still holding Zoya with one arm.
Zaid peered at him and tilted his head like his mom often did. And Dobby. Then that tiny face twisted and Zaid flung himself blindy at Asad and cried great heart-wrenching sobs with his arms wrapped around his daddy's neck.
Asad threw his head back and laughed even though his eyes were wet. He'd never been happier as he held his weeping family in his arms.
Song in title:
Tamasha (2015): "Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai"
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