As soon as she entered home from a grueling day at college, she heard Amma’s voice,
“Nazia! You have no time to waste. Just get the dinner ready. Your aunt and uncle are eating with us today.”
“Again?” She cried exasperatedly. “They were here yesterday and now again? Why?”
Amma looked at her with somber eyes. She didn’t know why her own daughter wouldn’t get why it was so important to host relatives every now and then.
“Because they’re also your future in-laws. That’s why. They are shopping in the area and I thought it would be nice if instead of eating out they ate food that you’ve cooked. It’s nice for them to know how lovely your cooking is”.
“Amma! Don’t tell them how LOVELY my cooking is. Do you want me to cook all the time when I’m at there place?”
“Don’t be silly. They have a cook. Why would they have you cook?”
“Then why do I have to cook now?”
“Because we don’t have a cook and I’ve done everything. You don’t have to do much. Just some final things. We will just tell them that you did it all after you came back from college”.
Amma lied through her teeth all the time so she wasn’t particularly surprised.
“Is Ahsan coming?” She asked curiously.
“Not until you are married to him. Who sees their fiancé?”
Reasonable people, she thought in her head and went into the kitchen.
But unbeknownst to everyone, Ahsan and Nazia met everyday after his work. They chatted and kissed and had started to make big plans of never living with his parents and making their own life away from their families. Nazia was relieved to hear that he hated his family’s boring traditions just as much as she did.
“I can’t tell you how much Amma annoys me when she makes me cook for your parents, Ahsan”, she complained the next day.
“Don’t worry. Aunty is so weird. She doesn’t even have to impress Ammi so much. Ammi likes you already”.
Does she? Nazia wanted to ask. Then why is she always throwing insults wrapped in sugar towards me? She frowned.
She could count on her fingers the number of times her mother-in-law had complimented her. She usually was ready to sling a backhanded remark.
“What happened?” He asked her.
“Nothing. I want to go home now”.
“Not now”, he took her in his arms. “I have just started looking at you”.
Before he could, she took his face in her hands and kissed him for many minutes.
She sometimes wondered why Amma was always asking her to do one chore or the other. And why did she always pair it with “I’m trying to get you ready for when you’re married”. Surely marriage wasn’t all cooking and household chores? Surely there was more to it?
But look at Amma, she thought sadly. Amma is always busy with one chore or another. If I didn’t help her she’d never sleep.
But Amma works so much because Abba never helps. Ahsan loves me so deeply. Our life is going to be different. Ahsan isn’t a baby boomer who is always angry with life and takes it out on his wife and kids. Their generation is really sad.
I can’t wait for next year. I can’t wait to get married. This has to stop. Once I’m married no one will ask me to do this or that. I’ll be autonomous. Finally an adult. People won’t be able to bully me into subjugation in the name of good girl behavior. No one would even care if I was a good girl or not. The only person that I’d have to concern myself with is Ahsan. And he already loves me so much .
As she sat in her marital bed alone she wondered where the time went. Just yesterday she was arguing with Amma about how she wanted to dress for her wedding and today she gave birth to her fourth child. Time does fly.
Time also hurts, scars and teaches. She had had some great teachers along the way besides time. Her in-laws, her kids, some friends and of course, the husband who seemed so predictable and familiar ten years ago.
She thought of a time, many years ago, when she kissed him out of sheer passion. When he couldn’t get enough of her. When they made plans to save and then escape the claws of a joint family.
She thought of the first unplanned pregnancy, and the second, and finally the fourth.
She thought of her majestic ideas of a great marriage with a partner who was the center of her universe. She couldn’t stand her spineless, sadistic husband anymore.
She looked at the child in her arms. She finally had a girl. In a family of boys, she had given birth to a girl. Unexpectedly, everyone was happy.
She heard her own words in her ears, taunting Amma,
“Why don’t you tell Abba that you need him more than his money? He hardly earns anything but stays out the whole day”.
Amma shushed her.
“Nazia! He’s our provider. I can’t go against him. How will you eat?”
She stared at Amma. Amma had a masters in Linguistics. Was she really that weak?
Was she herself so weak because she was the daughter of a weak woman? As she thought about it and felt the baby snuggle closer to her, the walls seemed to create a tunnel around her, with no light at the end of it .
Her bitter cries eventually brought her husband in the room.
Oh Ahsan, my Prince Charming! She looked at him with a disgusted expression. How I hate you now!
I’ve served you hand and foot the last ten years and you still couldn’t be mine. Besides sex, we never touch each other. Sex? She laughed to herself. It used to be good. Now it was just a meaningless set of motions that she was more than happy to get over with as soon as she could.
Oh Ahsan, how you deceived me! She averted her eyes to avoid his bleary-eyed gaze. You were already in love with your mother. Why did you marry me?
The promises, the talks of the future, the disregard that he showed for norms, the books that he got for her were all locked away in a big black box. There was no room for them in the small room that she and her four kids occupied.
Did I ever love him? She asked herself honestly. No, I didn’t! She answered herself. I saw him as the way out. The way out of my virginal existence. The way out of my father’s benevolence. I saw him as my salvation.
But he didn’t prove to be my salvation, she told her younger self. She screamed to the girl standing at the bus stop, waiting for her handsome fiancé with the minimum wage job not knowing that he would never have the time or aspiration to be anything more than what he was then, and jumping behind him on his bike as he stopped next to her.
She screamed until the girl turned around and looked at her. The girl looked surprised . Nazia opened her mouth to say something when Ahsan’s droning voice filled her ears.
“Nazia! Ammi would like you to make something for the guests who are arriving to see the baby. She said there might be fifty people”.
She asked Ahsan to be quiet. She strained her ears. Her own voice, that sounded more like someone crying now, echoed. Who was crying? She looked down and was surprised to see the baby crying.
“And feed her too”. Ahsan said disconnectedly and left.
“Why’re you crying?” She asked her twenty-four hour old baby.
“Is she hungry, Mama?” Her oldest asked.
“I think so! Can you get me a wet cloth from the bathroom, honey?”
He ran to the bathroom and re-emerged with a wet cloth and something else too. She saw that he had her nipple cream. She looked at him and he said nonchalantly,
“Mama, you needed it last year for Hamza. I thought you’d need it again so I brought it”.
Throughout her pregnancy no one had cared about her. She had worked until her water broke. Undocumented, bone breaking work. Parties, get togethers, lunches, dinners and weddings had happened during her high-risk pregnancy. She had had no support. She was alone. Amma and Abba had left her forever two years ago and she felt a twinge in her heart for not having a family.
But right now, her eight year old son, had remembered a need that she had forgotten herself.
She got up. She couldn’t wait for her salvation anymore.
She could see her daughter, twenty years in the future, standing at the bus stop waiting for a man with a mediocre character.
She could see her son, her darling son and his two brothers, becoming that man.
She couldn’t wait for rescue to arrive.
She thought Ahsan was the way out.
But it was always her. She was always her own way out .
She silently packed her bags and dragged them down. She had her jewelry at Amma’s. She could pick it up and spend the night in a hotel. She wasn’t going to make another elaborate meal, fake interest in social niceties and stay up the whole night with her baby.
She called out to Ahsan,
“I’m leaving. I can’t live here anymore. You can come to pick me up when you can come to pick me up. I’m not waiting for you. But if I live here, my daughter will circle the kitchen in a few years and my sons will learn to become oblivious to a woman suffering”.
“Did you ask Ammi?”
She laughed derisively.
“You can tell her, Ahsan. Everything. After all, she is more your significant other than I ever was. I will take you back if you get your act together. But I can’t be here anymore. I can’t be with a family that doesn’t care for me. I was with such a family, remember? I thought you’d save me from the tyranny that family brings on family. But you didn’t. You just encouraged me to jump out of the frying pan into the fire and then couldn’t take the heat and left me alone. So I’m doing exactly that today. I’m leaving you now”.