All’s fair…. Part 2

CHAPTER 11:

He was nervous all of a sudden. He hadn’t counted on feeling so nervous. He had spent a lifetime in his mother’s and brother’s shadow and had finally reclaimed himself just two years ago when he had met Tanya. She had given him confidence in himself and the feeling of self-worth. She loved him for him and didn’t hold him up for comparisons with anyone. Sometimes he wondered if she liked him because she had been so focused on a career all her life that mundane things like love hadn’t mattered to her, and when they had met, she just fell in love with the idea of love. But then he rejected these thoughts. Tanya’s love was like her. Pragmatic, confident, and pure. So it was hard for Bilal to understand his nervousness. His mother intimidated him usually, but Azhar was often his supply of self-control and steadiness. Today, he felt alone, even though Azhar was there.

“What did you want to talk about, Bilal?” Her voice, so cold and devoid of feeling, pierced through the silence.

He had to start now. Ami could also abruptly end this conversation if he stammered or looked like he was wasting her time.

“Ami! There’s a girl”, he said, walking towards her, “I want you to meet her parents, actually her mother. Her father passed away a few years ago”.

She wasn’t stupid. She knew this was coming. She had her finger on the pulse of her sons’ comings and goings. She was an authoritarian dictator and couldn’t let anything pass under her nose. She had noticed Bilal’s late-night talks with a girl, his staying out later than usual, his frantic texting on his phone, his interest in love stories. She was just surprised it took so long for him to confess the truth.

For she considered it a betrayal. That her son would have an affair of two years with a godforsaken whore and not tell her was the worst form of betrayal. He lived under her roof, ate meals that she cooked, depended on her and her husband, and didn’t think he should tell her about this sooner. But she was a calculating woman and regularly served revenge cold. She had supreme control of her emotions, so she had waited this one out. Her life would’ve been miserable if she let people control her feelings. She didn’t get close to her kids because kids become weaknesses. The only child she could love was Azhar.

Azhar, her golden boy, there wasn’t another son like him, there wasn’t even another man like him. She sometimes wondered how her husband gave her a child like Azhar. Her weak and charmless husband didn’t look like he had it in him to produce an heir so worthy of all that Nighat Afshan represented, that she had become indebted to him for giving her Azhar.

She looked at the two brothers while thinking of her answer. One so tall and handsome. The other taller and even more handsome. She wondered what her reaction would be if Azhar ever talked to her about a girl. Then she laughed at herself for having this thought. Azhar was so much like her that she could predict his every move. He didn’t give in to weak feelings and tender moments. He was a determined, goal-directed, brilliant boy.

“When her father was alive,” she asked, buying time, “what did he do?”

“He was a doctor. ”

There was silence. His father, who had so far been listening quietly, spoke up,

“Azhar isn’t married yet. How can we think about you?”

She raised her hand to silence him.

“That’s not the problem, Sabir.”

Bilal’s heart was sinking. He knew his mother. More than anyone, actually. When you have a lifetime affinity with your enemy, you start to know their soul. And his mother’s soul was black. And evil. She had always loved to torture him and subject him to cruel tests. This was a chance she couldn’t let go. She was going to make the most of this opportunity. He loved her beyond reason but knew she was pure evil.

“Bilal! I’m very disappointed in you. Very. I hope you know that”.

He hung his head. Tears threatened to flow. He wanted Azhar to say something. But Azhar was quiet.

She continued,

“You have had an affair with a girl of very questionable character for two years. And not just her, her mother’s character appears flawed too. Who would allow their daughter to cavort with men openly? Tell me something! Why didn’t her mother approach me before? Two years is a long time.”

“She didn’t tell her mother until last week, Ami. You and her mother are just finding out. She is a great girl. We met on a blind date. We just clicked, and then we fell in love. There’s nothing questionable about it”.

She rose. All five feet ten inches of her. In all her majesty. She rose slowly and came up to Bilal.

“I won’t approve of it. If the last thing I do is to prevent this whore from becoming a part of this family, then that’s the last thing I’ll do”.

She turned towards her bed, a subtle sign that this conversation was over.

“Why,” Azhar’s voice boomed, just as she was turning around and making it towards her bed, “Can you not meet with her mother just once?”

She turned around to stare at him. The son who looked so much like her. The same haughty features like he belonged to royalty. The same fierce righteousness that she had seen in other men of unwavering manhood. His mouth, never afraid to speak its mind. He was truly her son except he was slightly less complicated. Slightly more candid.

She said slowly, measuring her words carefully,

“I don’t think you get it, but I wouldn’t approve of a girl who meets men behind her mother’s back. This is deception in my eyes, and when you’ve been deceitful in one relationship, you can be deceitful in another one too”.

Azhar laughed. His signature high, mirthless, cold laugh. He couldn’t help it in the face of his mother’s sanctimoniousness.

“Coming from someone who controls the amount of air that her family breathes, this is rich. Do you think that people confide in parents of your generation? Do you think I would tell you or Hashir will or Aman will? You really have a great opinion of yourself, but one might argue that you have been deceitful too. You haven’t always done a flawlessly honest job with every single thing in life. You believe your own crap a little too much for your own good. If you don’t meet with her family, I will. If you don’t let him marry her, I will make every possible move to make it happen and bring happiness to them. You can’t control Bilal. You can control Abu, but you can’t control Bilal.”

“She doesn’t control me,” their father started feebly and fell silent at the look on Nighat’s face.

“I used to feel sorry for you,” Azhar said, shaking his head at the man who made his father, “Now I feel angry with you because you created a monster.”

“Are you calling me a monster, son?” She asked coldly while her eyes flashed.

How is he not afraid of her? Bilal thought, in awe of his fearless brother. How is he not afraid that she might get so upset that she won’t talk to him forever?

“Yes,” he said boldly, looking her in the eye, both of them trying to stare the other down.

Bilal and Sabir Hussain watched. The woman who never backed down. Shoulder to shoulder with the son who never withdrew from a fight or an argument. They were so similar in looks and demeanor that it was scary. They stood close to each other, battling each other’s will. Azhar, with his dark gray eyes, the storms of neglect and hatred that never settled rose and got louder in them. Nighat with her hazel eyes, always cold and calculating, many injustices to her and by her in there, cruelty still making room in their whites. They were both a force to reckon. The older woman and the young man. They were both formidable opponents and knew it.

But he’s the only worthy opponent, Nighat Afshan thought with satisfaction and pride, Azhar is my only worthy opponent. Bilal doesn’t matter.

“Well, then,” she said sweetly, “We’ve both said our peace, and now it’s on Bilal to make a choice. Me or the woman who has been lying to everyone and maybe even him. You’re both dismissed”.

CHAPTER 12:

“What did she say?” Her text message was flashing on his phone. She knew he was going to talk to his mother.

He contemplated telling her the truth. That it was more work than he had counted on. Frankly, he hadn’t thought Ami would be so bothered with his marriage or his choice. She was always so focused on Azhar and who he would like that she normally just ignored him.

But he couldn’t tell her the truth. He hadn’t even had a proper conversation with Ami. He wanted to talk to her again the next day. In private. He won’t take anyone with him. Just him and her. Maybe she’d be more receptive.

“She wants to think about it, but that’s good. I told you, right? She isn’t a very warm woman. She doesn’t get emotional easily”.

“I don’t want her to like me out of emotion anyway,” she typed back. “She should like me for you.”

“Tanya!” He said, his heart trembling with fear at the uprightness of his headstrong girlfriend, so much like his brother, a quality so intensely disliked by his mother, “I’m choosing you. I like you. That should be enough. Don’t get into the frivolity that normally surrounds other people. We are in love with each other. That should be enough. None of us should shoot for universal popularity”.

She sighed. He made sense. She knew that this was going to be bumpy. He was right. They were enough for each other.

Why is it so hard? She thought sadly. Her mother hadn’t been talking to her, and she felt rejected and left alone. She had tried to speak to her mother again that evening, and she hadn’t engaged. Just asked,

“Has he talked to his family?”

“No. He will tonight”.

“Okay.” Her mother didn’t make eye contact with her.

So all that she had left to call her own was Bilal. She just wanted to run away with him. She couldn’t take it. If this was the price of love, then she couldn’t take it. She’ll just elope with him. That would be best. They’ll just go somewhere, away from their families who couldn’t see their love for what it was.

CHAPTER 13:

He took the day off from work. This was the best time to have a heart to heart with his mother. She was usually an early riser and spent her day tending to the plants, catching up with cousins, sisters, and friends over the phone, instructing their help about house chores, and reorganizing one closet or another. She didn’t pray or meditate. Religion wasn’t her thing. Culture was. She adored culture and tradition. She was well-versed in traditional rituals and occasions. Whatever religious occasions she followed, she did because of their cultural significance. He had never seen her praying with her hands raised.

Maybe she has never had to pray for anything, he thought.

Azhar prayed. Long prayers that took up most of the night. He offered Tahajjud and Ishraq and Chaasht. He had been learning the Quran by heart when they were kids but then had to leave midway because of their mother removing their teacher. Azhar learned the Quran through books that helped with enunciation, pronunciation, and articulation of Arabic. Then he taught it to Bilal. Then to Hashir and now to Aman.

He cried during prayers. He prayed in solitude, but his eyes were always red, especially after Fajr. The mosque was at a stone’s throw from their place, and they said all five prayers with the congregation. Azhar had a special connection with Allah.

He peeked in her room. She had her back to him and was arranging the closet that she had probably arranged the day before too.

“Ami!” He called tentatively.

She turned around in surprise. Then she smiled her beautiful mesmerizing smile.

“What’s up, son? You didn’t go to work today?”

“No,” he walked towards her hesitantly. “I wanted to talk to you about Tanya.”

“So, her name is Tanya?”

“Yes. Tanya Tariq”.

“That’s a beautiful name.”

“She’s beautiful, Ami,” he said, emboldened by the softness in her voice, “She’s a beautiful person. She’s amazing. She makes me so happy”.

“Bilal! Why do you think I’m objecting to this? Do you think I like to stand in the way of my children’s happiness?”

Yes, he thought, not intentionally maybe, but that’s how you are programmed. If it’s happiness that isn’t approved by you, we can’t have it.

“Ami,” he said, fearing that the tears would spill over, “I’ve promised to marry her. She is counting on me. I can’t turn her down. I love her, and she loves me. Her mother is already giving her a tough time. I don’t want to add to her problems. If we approached them with kindness, love, and acceptance, then that would make all of this a happy occasion. I had never thought it would become so sad”.

” I can’t decide whether you want to marry her because you pity her because she has been the subject of your leisure activity or you want to marry her because you just want to displease me. We’ve already had this conversation last night, and Azhar called me a monster. He has said that he’d be helping you with this. Why don’t you ask for his help? I’m not a part of this anymore”.

“I want to marry her because I love her. Why do you keep missing that?”

“Men love many women, before and after they get married. They don’t marry all of them. If I were you, I’d look for a woman who didn’t dally with men on the side. What does she do, by the way?”

“She’s in medical school. Fourth-year, soon to be fifth”.

“So she has another year?”

“Yes.”

“What does she want to do after that?”

“She’s very ambitious, Ami! She wants to start her own urgent care center. She has already made big plans for her fellowship. She wants to go into critical care and pulmonology. You’ll be so impressed by her, Ami. I can’t say in words what she is and the effect she has on people…..”

“I’ve heard enough,” she cut him short.

This is difficult, she thought, a man smitten by a woman. He is so impressionable from a young age. So many girlfriends and he chooses this one. A doctor. What use do I have for her? Does he think that he’ll get in an educated woman who can think for herself and I’ll let him? No! That can’t happen. I haven’t created this family with room for another woman.

“Bilal,” she said quietly, the brown of her eyes turning lighter, the silence in the room becoming colder as he sat there, the unmistakable glint of the executioner’s blade flashed in front of him like it had so many times before and murdered his aspirations and dreams without any consideration, “I will not approve of it. And if you marry her, I will never see you again. If you marry her, I will not let your father or your brothers ever see you. You won’t be a part of this family. I will see to it that that happens and I’ll make it happen. You know I keep my word and I have done it before. No one can dissuade me from removing you. It’s a simple enough choice. You’re making it complicated by pursuing me for an answer. She must be a great girl but she isn’t for us. She might be for you. But she isn’t for us”.

His heart bore all of it with unimaginable strength. Alienation, ex-communication, rejection, favoritism were his mother’s well-known weapons. She used them to her advantage. She had plonked herself at the top of this family and now controlled every emotion, every move, every desire from her vantage point. He loved her, but a part of him was scared of her too for she could strip him of everything. No one would want to have anything to do with him if she so ordered. Azhar might not listen to her and face the repercussions of his hotheadedness gladly but what about his little brothers? Aman would not see him. Hashir too. His heart tore into pieces as he thought of the PlayStation that sat in his room as a surprise birthday present to his youngest brother.

Flashbacks came! He was at Ami’s feet and begging to see Azhar. But she had sent him to Islamabad to spend time with some relatives so she could torture Bilal. Then she had agreed to bring him back on one condition! Bilal won’t ever sleep in her bed again.

They were punished routinely as children. Big punishments for little people with even littler mistakes. She exacted punishment like a debt. She was ruthless in demanding complete subservience.

He didn’t say anything. Like always, his mother won. Like always, he chose her over everything else.

CHAPTER 14:

His feet had never been this heavy. He walked back into his room. He wanted to talk to Tanya and cry on her shoulder. He wanted to see her and just take her away from it all.

He crashed into his bed and looked around. This room had been his sanctuary. Azhar had chosen the furniture when they shared it together. Then another section of the house was finished and Azhar moved into another room. This room had Azhar’s unmistakable impression on it.

So many memories with his brothers inhabited this room. When Azhar and Bilal were growing up, they had separate rooms but chose to room together. Later, because Azhar didn’t use his room, Ami converted it into a guest room.

They had bought the furniture together but it was definitely Azhar’s choice more than his. It was a typical bachelor’s furniture. Oakwood, straight solid lines, a utilitarian look, a modern edge, a little color on the walls in the form of NBA posters. Underneath these posters, Azhar and Bilal hid pinups of Cindy Crawford, Pamela Anderson, the many girlfriends of Hugh Hefner, Maxim’s centerfolds of hot women, the Kardashian sisters. Still to this day, in a corner drawer, was their collection of Playboy, Hustler, Cosmopolitan and Playgirl.

Their wardrobe belonged to both of them. Azhar ironed both their clothes and whoever got up first, picked out an outfit and left. Usually, Bilal got up early to pick the better outfit but Azhar would never mind. He was so good looking that everything looked good on him.

“You’re the best looking guy I’ve ever laid eyes on.” Tanya’s voice echoed around him.

They were at the beach, their hands in each other’s, their faces close, he could feel her warm breath in his face.

“You certainly have a pretty sad repertoire of men you’ve laid eyes on, then! I don’t think I’m good looking at all”.

She looked at him with surprise in her black eyes. Surely he knew how sexy he was.

“If you’re not good looking then why do I want to see you all the time?”

“That’s because you love me.”

“Then you must think I’m good looking too,” she said laughing at his explanation.

“I do,” he said, pulling her in and breathing in her hair. She held her breath and he could feel her body tensing in anticipation. His hands started pulling her even closer until she was firmly up against him, her body against his chest, their breathing heavy, a sense of urgency in how she kept pressing herself into him even more, his eyes boring into hers, the stars and the moon looking over in complete admiration of the spectacle of love and desire, the waves crashing against the shore in sync with their passionate subservience to their longing for the other’s body.

She sighed and resigned to deep, soul deep kisses that he left on her neck, her mouth and her face. Her hands kept moving in his hair, ruffling it and feeling it, its richness adding to the powerful tug she had always felt towards him.

Something pulled him to his room, to the now and here . He missed her and had to see her. But she’d ask and she was the only person he couldn’t lie to.

I can’t give up. I’ll ask Azhar. She won’t say no to Azhar. Ami will never say no to Azhar. She cannot say no to Azhar. She loves him. She will give him anything he’ll ask for. I’ll ask him to ask for Tanya for me.

Calm came over. Azhar, his savior, his brother, the only person in the whole world who had always watched out for him, will save him again. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. He hadn’t slept the whole night, the night before. Now it seemed silly, his sleeplessness. He had Azhar. What was he so worried about?

CHAPTER 15:

“Of course, man”, Azhar exclaimed, “Of course I’ll talk to Ami. I would’ve anyway. I won’t let her pettiness keep you from getting the love of your life”.

It was so easy to communicate with Azhar. His brother, his confidante, his mentor and his wingman. Bilal loved him and knew that Azhar would get it done. He never failed.

“May be talk to her when no one’s around”, Bilal suggested, “When Abu is around she’s in a bad mood “.

“Don’t worry,” Azhar said grimly, “I’ll really suck up to her. She’s always complaining that I’m mean to her. So I’ll turn it around. I’ll be extremely nice and groveling”.

Bilal burst out laughing. The sound of his laugh was alien to him, he hadn’t laughed in so many days. Azhar, who never shied away from physical contact and affection, pulled him in an embrace.

“Don’t worry! I’ll get anything for my baby brother.”

Bilal didn’t know motherly or fatherly love. Azhar had always been everything. He had wiped his tears, solved his problems, finished his homework, got him on sports teams and soothed his tantrums if he ever had any. He wasn’t like this with their other brothers. With them he was cool and aloof. He loved them and had a certain camaraderie with them but Bilal was special. Bilal was the labor of his blood and sweat. And Bilal knew it. Azhar’s love for him was palpable. The only physical touch that he had ever known was Azhar’s. When his older brother hugged him, he broke down. All the ache, grief and tumult came to a head and his tears flowed.

He never cried unless with Azhar. There was no other place to call home or safe. Azhar had spent his entire life protecting him from Ami’s wrath and the disgrace that she reserved particularly for Bilal.

Azhar was silent. He never cried unless to Allah. His heart broke hearing his brother’s silent sobs but he didn’t show it. He never showed emotion unless with Bilal. With Bilal he was himself. Completely authentic and true to form.

“Billu! I’ll talk to her. I won’t return until she says yes”.

Bilal was crying but his heart was peaceful. Azhar had got this. He hadn’t even asked him the name of the girl he loved. Nothing was important to him except Bilal’s happiness. In a world where he was constantly overlooked, only Azhar and Tanya clung on to him and never let him drown.

CHAPTER 16:

She looked around the garden. The hydrangeas and tulips looked beautiful. She had planted them last year and they were finally giving lovely pink and purple flowers. Very few things gave her any delight but gardening was her passion. It was the one thing that was predictable, worked according to how she chose the seeds and the seasons she planted them in. Plants had never disappointed her.

Her sons, on the other hand, were a different story. Azhar had, God only knew, what grievances with her. Bilal, the child whom she had bore with such pain and misery after an extremely difficult pregnancy, was a total failure in life. Her other two sons were young but didn’t look like they had promising futures either.

Such a shame, she thought to herself, I could’ve been a doctor today if my father hadn’t gotten me married.

Nighat Afshan thought about the eventful day when her college results came out. She had scored high enough to get accepted to the best medical school. She told her mother but she flatly refused to facilitate anything for her. Both her brothers were in medical school and extremely supportive. When they heard that she wanted to be a medical student, they quietly submitted the paper work and the application . She got accepted.

Nothing paralleled the joy she felt that day. It was like how a new star is born in the galaxy. How the waves finally carve a stream and start their own path. How a woman reclaims her mind and her independence.

She couldn’t sleep the whole night. Her brothers were coming the next day. She had asked them to be there for her when this news was broken to their father. They had finally put a few tests on hold and were coming to convince their father that she deserved it.

She remembered the day, clear as if it was happening now in front of her eyes. It had become an out of body experience even within that moment. She had experienced soul-crushing pain and intolerable insult. Her father, when he heard that she had been accepted to Dow, the best medical college in Karachi, had asked her with beady eyes,

“So you’ll be studying medicine? For five years?”

Eighteen year old Nighat, tall and stately even then, with beauty that was uncontested, with intelligence that shone through her youthful face, imperial in her mannerism but always respectful to her father, replied with her eyes low,

“Yes, Abu”.

“That’s an awfully long time. You’ll be an old maid by then. Who will marry you?”

Her oldest brother interjected,

“Abu! 23-24 isn’t that old. She’ll have a medical degree. Think about it. It’s an honor. Her name is at the top of the list. She’ll be the first woman doctor of the family”.

She saw her father sinking deeper in his seat and felt a little hope that may be he’d consider it. Her father was a shrewd and seasoned businessman. He had married her mother when she was very young, only fourteen. He himself was forty at the time. But with time somehow her mother got old faster than him and now he looked much younger.

He always got his way. Always. With his wife and kids. With his parents and siblings. With his friends and employees. No one ever went against him. He didn’t tolerate that. He excommunicated and alienated people routinely for standing up to him. He was ruthless and cold. He had no compassion. He was the poster boy for toxic patriarchy. She didn’t like him but loved him and deliberately tried to emulate him too. Even when she was younger she could see that his ways worked.

“Mehmud!” He addressed his son, “No daughter of mine will go to medical school. There are men there. I went to engineering school and I know what it’s like. She’ll be much safer at home with her husband. Another woman, who can shamelessly spend her days and nights with men, can become a doctor in her place. My daughter is above all this. Much above. She’s my pride and my honor. She’s not going anywhere”.

“Abu!” Nighat said haltingly, “I will come back home when my classes are over. If you want I won’t make friends. I won’t ever give anyone my phone number. I’ll even go to college with someone whom you trust if you don’t trust me. They can keep an eye on me”.

Her father came close to her. He was a tall, handsome man. Much like her. She had her mother’s beauty and her father’s stature. Her fearlessness, spunk and intrepidity were all her father’s. Unwillingly she had become him.

He towered over her, with his hand on her head.

“I don’t trust you. You’re too young to be trusted. When men are trusted, they show courage and valor. When women are trusted, they show misjudgment and lack of insight. No, my daughter! I don’t trust women. Particularly young women. Young beautiful women. They can’t be trusted because they don’t know what’s good for them”.

Two weeks later she was married off to Sabir Hussain, four inches shorter than her, a successful businessman, someone she could never love or care for. Someone who made marriage hard to live.

She sighed. The past haunted her and validated her too. Her stance on Bilal’s issue with that girl was probably not fair but she didn’t care. Life isn’t fair.

She saw her oldest coming towards her. It had all been worth it, Nighat Afshan thought looking at Azhar walking into the garden, for my golden son wouldn’t have been born if I hadn’t married Sabir.

He was approaching her with a steely look. She laughed inwardly. She loved him but nothing weakened her. Not even Azhar. She knew he was his brother’s advocate. But he forgot that she had given birth to them and was always many steps ahead of them.

CHAPTER 17:

“Ami”, he said as he came near her, noticing that she was already looking at him with a hyperawareness that he had come to associate with her instinctual cunning. She was the most untrustworthy woman he knew and if he hadn’t met good women in his teachers and aunts she would’ve ruined the impression of a woman to him forever.

There were lighter moments between them. When they laughed and actually liked each other. When they were the mother and son that Allah had made them. But they were rare and they usually had one of his brothers as the buffer. One on one, Azhar Hussain and Nighat Afshan were like oil and water.

Why does Bilal think she loves me and listens to me? She hates me, he thought.

“What’s going on, son?” She said casually, “came to see my flowers?”

He looked at the flowers with interest in his eyes. This was the one thing out of the very few that he and his mother occasionally bonded over. Gardening!

“They’re beautiful, Ami!” He said, excited to see so much new life and immediately taking it as an omen. “Wow! Never thought hydrangeas would take. You know what our neighbors said, right? That this neighborhood isn’t for hydrangeas! Guess they just needed more work”.

Azhar’s approval and happiness meant everything to her. He was her first born and the child she had prayed for incessantly while carrying him. She had had a smooth pregnancy with him. As a child he was compliant and obedient. He never bothered her with tantrums and meltdowns. He was a beautiful baby and grew up to be the most handsome man that was there in many generations. She didn’t know why he was distant and upset with her usually but she didn’t care to find the reason. She had confided in her father once that Azhar didn’t love her. Her father had said that kids weren’t supposed to love their parents. They were supposed to respect them.

He kept examining the flowers and then moved to the tulips,

“Excellent job, Ami! So proud of you. You really have a green thumb. Next we should get roses”.

She smiled. A genuine smile that seldom touched her lips. Azhar was like a child around plants. He loved planting them, tending to them and protecting them from the weather. He’ll be a great father and husband, she thought proudly, to the prettiest girl in the world.

“I’m so glad you like them, son. Would you like some tea?”

He hesitated for a bit,

“Actually! I wanted to talk about Bilal”.

“What about him?”

“You know, Ami. He’s devastated. Why won’t you see the girl’s mom?”

“I don’t think you get it, son, this isn’t your business. Or even Bilal’s. I’ll marry you and your brothers off. You’ve already told me that I can look for someone for you. Bilal won’t be disappointed in my choice”.

“I told you to look for my wife because I’m not in love with anyone. Bilal is. There’s a huge difference”.

“Why is Bilal in love, by the way?” She said, immediately firing up at the mention of love, “why is he whiling away his time in love? Has he done everything else in life? He never completed business school, makes a meager amount as an accountant. He got that job because your father knows those people. Why isn’t he focusing on his career and wasting time on a chippy? Did you ask him that?”

“Ami! Sit, please sit”, he coaxed his mom into sitting, “let’s see if I can talk to you about this and if you can understand”.

She was surprised at Azhar’s commitment to it. Normally he didn’t sit ever with her.

He sat opposite her.

“Ami! Bilal is fine. There are many things that are wonderful about him. His kindness, compassion, love, friendship and most of all, the way he cares for us. Sometimes these things are harder to have. Anyone can have a job and a degree. But very few people have a heart, a soul and a desire to love and be loved. He has that. Isn’t that something special? The girl he has chosen must be just as special. I’m sure of that”.

“How can you be sure”, she said, agitated at his monologue, “that she’s special when you haven’t even met her?”

“Because I trust Bilal. If he thinks she’s special then she’s special to me too”.

“Azhar! You like to side with Bilal a lot, I know. Can I ask you if you ever counsel him, show him the error in his judgment, try to make him a wee bit wiser? As his older brother, that’s your job”.

“He’s fine, Ami”, he said balling his fists in exasperation. “He’s a wonderful person. The best human being I know. I’ll die if he cries again, Ami. I can’t see him cry”.

Where was his love for her? He could die for Bilal but for his own mother he sometimes had so much contempt in his eyes that it scared her. Where is his love for me, she thought, anger coursing through her.

“I think you’ll have to tell him that I have said no again”, she said, getting up.

Evening had started to set in. Birds were returning to their homes and there was a lot of chirping in the air. When a few birds chirp, it’s music. When a hundred or so chirp, it’s a din.

The sky was turning red against Nighat’s back. The sun had left a little orange on the horizon to soften the red. There was a cooler breeze now, shuffling through the birch trees and the shrubbery, causing them to sway together.

They were both quiet. She stood tall and grand, he was sitting with his shoulders hunched thinking of the cruelty that she would knowingly inflict on her own flesh and blood.

“I can’t tell him that, Ami” he said, finally standing up to his full height, facing his beautiful mother with her arched brows and hazel brown eyes, “I can’t tell him that. This is why I want a yes. He’s my life. I can’t not give him what he most desires”.

Her anger and resentment at him and Bilal kept peaking. They were always in cahoots. She had always been alone. Bilal had separated Azhar from her and now she will lose everything.

But she didn’t have to lose anything. She knew Bilal. Azhar would’ve been difficult to convince but Bilal was a family man. He didn’t hold anything above his parents or his brothers. Particularly Azhar . And she had threatened him with alienation from all of them.

“Okay, son”, she said looking him in the eye unblinkingly , “You and Bilal can do whatever you want. But if you help Bilal with this, I won’t let you see Bilal ever. I’ll kick you out of here and out of our lives. If you have any honorable bone in your body you’d agree to this bargain. Help Bilal accomplish this marriage and I’ll separate you from him. I can tell you this! I will make sure I separate the two of you. I can’t have my own children challenging my authority. I’ll separate you and since you have Bilal’s best interest at heart, you should be okay with it. Let me know what Bilal says when you tell him that. Because if he gets the girl and loses you, he’ll die anyway. I’ll let you two soldiers decide what and who gets to play the lamb”.

He looked at her, aghast. He knew his mother was vicious and vain but to even think that she’d stoop so low as to blackmailing them was not something he had ever expected. Sure she had a nasty side. Sure she was temperamental. Sure she had some skeletons in the closet that she didn’t like mentioning. But for her to stoop so low was a new low even for her.

“Ami” his voice quivered slightly, “you’re not being fair. You’re having an opinion of a girl whom you don’t even know. An innocent girl. A girl who is actually a medical student. A virtuous girl. Who loves your son. When I hear about her, all I see is good. I don’t know how all you hear is bad. Please reconsider. Bilal won’t marry her if you don’t approve of it. He won’t but he won’t be happy either”.

Nighat looked at him and felt sorry for disappointing him. But she couldn’t help him. It was on Bilal now to quietly give up, let her find someone for Azhar and then him so they could all be happy together.

CHAPTER 18:

He lay in bed late at night staring at the ceiling. Tanya had called multiple times and then had texted that she was dying.

He was dying too. He couldn’t save her.

His mother had been so cruel to Azhar too. He had heard everything himself. He was glad he did. Azhar would’ve silently sacrificed himself for him.

Azhar hadn’t come to him after the conversation with their mother. He had taken the car and left. He had been gone for six hours.

It was midnight now. He called Azhar and he didn’t pick up. He wanted to call some other people and see if he was with friends but he didn’t have the energy or the will. Everyone should die, he thought savagely, only Ami should live in her castle of cruelty.

His eyes were red but surprisingly, no tears had come this time. The night was quiet. There was a lone bird on a tree somewhere, likely lost for tonight, occasionally squealing like asking for help.

His phone lit up again. It was her.

“Please pick up. Please! Don’t leave me”.

Pain that he had never known before occupied his body. Someone slowly took his heart and tried to squeeze it to see how much it would bleed. But his heart was stronger than all this. It didn’t stop. It won’t stop, he knew that. That would be easy. Someone had written a brutal death for him. Life was going to kill him slowly.

He finally called her. She was at the hospital on her obstetric call. She had just seen a baby come into this world and had considered that a great sign. New life, new life, new life. That was all she talked about. Her voice cracked at times, she knew a little of what was going on. But she was a brave girl. She asked him if he was okay. He asked her if she could sneak out for a few hours. They had done that before. She told him she’d be ready in an hour.

Forty five minutes later she was in his car. They drove quietly to the beach. The only place where they felt alone and away from it all. She didn’t ask any questions. He didn’t even say hi. She was afraid to ask. He was trying to speak.

The beach was quiet as it usually was in the middle of the night. They didn’t get out of the car. She sat there, staring ahead. He stared at the steering wheel.

“Tanya!”

“She didn’t approve, right?”

“No”.

“But I don’t need her approval, right? You said I didn’t need it. You said you like me and that’s enough. Do you remember that? It was just last week”.

He didn’t say anything. He had said that and had meant that. But he had also not counted on his mother’s stubbornness and malice.

She turned to face him,

“You said it. And I believed you. I’m yours and you’re mine. If you try to change it, it won’t end well for anyone”.

How was she so belligerent? How could she be so forceful, so passionate? She was a woman with so much conviction for their love. Where was his courage? A man’s courage. Even Azhar had spoken more than he had for her and himself.

He noticed she was sobbing. Quiet sobs that shook her light body.

“Bilal! If you leave me I won’t forgive you. Ever. I won’t be able to have anyone else. My whole life will be lonely and alone. Is that what you want?”

Is that what he wanted? He thought. No. He wanted to take her in his arms and hide her from the whole world. Keep her hidden from evil people like Ami and Abu. They didn’t love him. If they loved him they’d have accepted her.

She got out of the car. She ran towards the water but fell midway and he could see her body shaking violently with her loud crying. He couldn’t take it. She mourned their love like a death. But it’s true, he thought with sadness and despair, it’s a death. The death of our life together.

He walked over to her. He tried to take her in his arms one last time, claim a little of her before he said goodbye, drink in that intelligent face and those beautiful black eyes. She stepped back and screamed,

“No!!! No!!!! You don’t touch me anymore. You don’t have me anymore. You’ll never have me now. You can’t speak to me, call me, text me or think about me. No! You need to stay away from me. I don’t want you now. I don’t want a man who couldn’t stand up for me. For us. I don’t want you”.

He looked at her, the waves raising a havoc in the background, his heart trying to break out of his rib cage, a distant rumbling of thunder, the moon looking forlorn and meek, the stars watching them in horror! None of the witnesses of their love spoke. He didn’t speak either. She didn’t speak anymore but continued to rock with the force of her sobs and the might of her grief.

Many minutes passed. She finally took her cell phone out and dialed a number. Someone immediately picked up. She cried with a heart wrenching sound when she heard them picking up. Her body shook violently and someone asked urgently if she was okay. She managed to say,

“I’m at the beach, Mama. Can you come pick me up?”

So she had dismissed him too? She won’t sit back in his car? She ended it, just like that. She was just going to go back with her mother and leave him alone.

Could she not even hug him, one last time? Could she not even kiss him, one last time? Could she not even hear him, one last time? Could she not even own him, one last time?

He felt everything spinning around him. He wanted to move but his body couldn’t walk away from Tanya. His Tanya. The only woman in the world for him. The smartest girl. The cutest girlfriend he had ever had.

“Do you know you are very cute?” His voice was in his ears.

“Nope. I think I’m beautiful”.

“Nice! Think very highly of yourself”.

“People say I’m beautiful.”

“No. You’re cute. Like Minnie Mouse”.

“Okay but I should warn you that that would make you Mickey Mouse”.

“Are you kidding me? She’s his sister”.

“Are YOU kidding me? She’s his girlfriend “.

“No way! His girlfriend is Daisy”.

“No. Daisy is Donald’s girlfriend”.

“Oh”, Then a second later, “so who’s Goofy’s significant other?”

“No one”.

“That’s not fair”.

“Not everyone is paired and coupled up, Bilal! It’s not Bollywood. Walt Disney didn’t believe in squaring everyone out”.

“Everyone should be paired up so they can have loads of sex and love their partner and always be happy”.

She smiled at him. Her magically confounding smile. Then she snuggled closer.

“Are we going to get paired up and have loads of sex and love?”

He caressed her cheek and traced a line to to her neck.

“Do you promise to always be just as cute?”

He was pulled back by a car stopping close, Tanya getting in, a woman who looked strikingly like Tanya in the driver’s seat. The woman gave him a furtive glance. Her face was full of anger and hatred. Then the car sped away.

His legs were weak with defeat and shame. He called Azhar.

“Can you come to the beach to pick me up?”

“Yes. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes”.

Azhar came in fifteen minutes. As promised. He always kept his word. Like a man. Like a man with guts and courage and steadfastness. Bilal wondered why they were brothers with so many different traits. What was similar? Where was that connection?

Azhar walked towards him. Bilal saw him and felt weaker. He knelt on the sand as he saw his brother. Azhar ran forward and grabbed him, afraid he’d fall.

Bilal hugged him. Azhar hugged him back. Bilal cried. His tears kept washing over Azhar’s shoulders. For many minutes.

Finally Azhar cried too. The brothers sat in the sand and cried together. Like they had many a time as kids when one had gotten a beating or a time out from their mother.

They hugged each other like two children who had nothing to face the world with. No strength, no weapons, no resources and no spirit.

When they finally separated, they both felt lighter. Bilal felt drowsy, Azhar vigilant over his brother.

Slowly they made it to Azhar’s car. They got back home at 5 in the morning .

Nighat Afshan was awake. She saw the car coming in. She sighed with satisfaction. She had been worried about where her sons were. She never called to check on them because it was a sign of weakness to her. But she had been worried. She watched the brothers get down from the car, the older supporting the younger, and shut the blinds. Now she could go to sleep peacefully.

CHAPTER 18:

Azhar got him into bed and thought of having the conversation another day. Bilal held on to him, wide awake now and wired.

“What happened? What happened? Where is she?”

“She’s gone. She wasn’t there when I got there”.

“Yeah!” He said slowly, reliving his last moments with her. “Oh yeah! Now I remember! She’s dead. Ami killed her. Like she killed me, Azhar. Remember when she killed me?”

He shook Bilal a little but then realized that he was awake. He was awake. May be a little delirious but he was awake.

“Bilal! Get some rest. We have to talk but not now. After you’ve had some rest”.

Bilal looked at him dazedly and after a few minutes he was sleeping again.

He sat there with him. He had spent many nights watching over his brothers when they had been sick. He had cleaned their puke, set alarms for medicines and had taken them to doctors. When he was 12, Bilal had typhoid. He had taken a month off of school and tended to him. Ami scoffed at his sentimentality and Abu had remained disconnected like always. Bilal had a bad case of typhoid and ultimately needed to be admitted. He had stayed all five days in the hospital with him.

There hadn’t been anyone while growing up. He had learned to accept Ami as a beautiful heartless woman when he was a child. He wondered how she wasn’t more loving when she was so social and had countless friends. She was also a great friend. People asked her for help all the time and she was always available for them. He thought she hated them secretly. May be she doesn’t like children, he would think.

But as he started to become mature in age and reasoning he realized that his mother was a narcissist of epic proportions. She was strong-willed and manipulative. She was just like her own father and so his favorite. His grandfather regularly sought her counsel and they both advised each other in matters of family, business and keeping a tight leash on people around them. They were a lethal combination.

But she loved her father, as far as he could tell. She had learned deception, manipulation and double-crossing at his feet. She used people to her advantage, even her kids. She tried to break him and Bilal up many times but had been unsuccessful. They were thick as thieves and each other’s best friends. Nothing, not even Ami and her sadism could separate them.

So yes he had learned to have a heavily nuanced love for her with the caveat that for as long as she didn’t hurt her brothers she would be acceptable to him. But now she had gone too far. Now she actually hurt a brother of his, his favorite brother, someone whose life he had saved many times from illness and rejection. Now she had hurt him grievously. He couldn’t love her anymore.

He was lost in thought and didn’t realize that Bilal was awake and staring into space.

“Bilal!”

“Hmm”.

“Don’t give up”.

“I won’t. I’ll never give up loving her”.

“Yes. That too. But also don’t give up fighting for yourself and her. You don’t need Ami’s say so. You are an adult and can marry her without her involvement or approval”.

Oh,Azhar! He thought! Life is so simple for you. You’re you and that’s enough. I’ve always wanted to be someone that Ami would love and I’m still behind everyone.

“I don’t want to fight anymore. These past three days have exhausted me. I lost Ami, I can lose you and I have already lost the girl who was at the heart of all of this. I’m done. I’m so weak”.

Azhar felt his temper rising. Why was Bilal giving up? Is this the love that he had been trying to convince everyone for? What the hell! This is the long and short and deep of it? Really?

“You are weak. So weak”, he cried belligerently, “You’re giving up. All your life you’ve given up. Who are you trying to please, huh? The woman who is our mother? She is still important to you? Haven’t you seen how she is so sinisterly calculating and how black her heart is? She is threatening all of us with alienation and we are cowering under those dark threats? Do you think she has a conscience, a God, a centre? She can’t do this to us. To people we love. Don’t let her take away your love from you”.

He got up and grabbed Azhar’s neck,

“Shut up, shut up,” he growled with red-rimmed eyes and a face that was contorted to look so much like their mother’s, “If anyone of you calls me weak one more time, I will kill you. I will kill all of you. I will kill everyone of you”.

Anger as he had never known came over Azhar. He shook Bilal off and slapped him across his face,

“Don’t grab me like a animal. I’m warning you. Don’t ever raise your hand on me. I will not tolerate it”.

“How dare you, bastard”, Bilal screamed, “Look what you’ve done to my face”. There was blood oozing out of the corner of his mouth.

“I’ll beat you up, Bilal! I swear I will. I will beat you up and not feel bad about it. You’re a coward and a nobody. All my life I tried to make you someone I could be proud of…… but…… I’m not proud of you. I’m not proud of you for leaving her….. I don’t even know her name…… but that girl, that innocent girl whose life spun out of control last night. You changed her life forever. So tell me something because you don’t want to be called weak or coward or spineless! Tell me because I really wanna know! What exactly does romancing a girl, being her boyfriend for two years, then proposing to her but not carrying that proposal forward because your mother won’t approve of it, make you? Tell me because that’s who you are”.

Bilal lunged at him. He didn’t know why but he wanted to beat Azhar to a pulp. He kicked at him, punched him and brutally pulled at his hair. Azhar finally wrestled back and the two young men ended up on the floor, tackling each other, thirsty for blood.

The door opened with a bang!

Hashir and Aman had heard them. They came rushing in and tried to separate their older brothers while tears ran down their faces.

Behind them stood Nighat! She didn’t come forward. She didn’t try to break up the fight. She watched her youngest two free the oldest from each other’s hands and fists, getting hit in the murderous blows. She didn’t come forward.

As they both disentangled and caught their breath, they noticed their mother. Azhar had a bloody nose and had obviously taken a lot more than he had given to Bilal. But Bilal had a gash across his left cheek too, blood rapidly dripping, staining the beige carpet.

Azhar came forward. He stood taller than her, standing so close that she could smell his blood, with anger and contempt in his gray eyes,

“Happy?”

She looked at him with calm in her face and replied,

“No dogs fight in my house. If ever you want to have a fistfight with your brothers, make sure you do it where I can’t see you or hear you”.

“Are you happy?” He yelled, so loudly that Aman started to cry and Bilal convulsively moved towards him, the fight forgotten, ever so protective of his soul-brother.

“Azhar! Come with me”, he pleaded urgently, pulling at his arm and forcing him away from her.

“No!!!” He yanked his arm free, marched back up to her and asked her again,

“Are you happy? Answer me now! Are you happy? She left him. She left him last night. You destroyed everything. So you must be happy now, you sadistic shadow of a woman !”

“Curse words”, she said coolly, bringing her face closer to his, her eyes a mix of victory and triumph, “aren’t my specialty. I believe in action. Fools cry. The wise walk over them. So you can cry but I’m walking over you, right now”.

She turned around and left, leaving her four sons, each neglected and belittled by her all their lives, crying silently. Each holding the other’s hand. Each with demons too many to count. Each with grief too big to swallow.

CHAPTER 19:

The next week the nightmares started. He would wake up and couldn’t go back to sleep. He saw shapes in his room and heard voices. Some people whispered behind his back about how they should kill him.

He became afraid of his room. Azhar started sleeping with him.

He lost his appetite. He lost twenty pounds in two months.

Two months? Is that how long she had been gone? He shivered at the counting.

Azhar force fed him. He started fighting with everyone. Even Azhar.

Finally one day Azhar asked him if he’d go see a psychiatrist.

“I’m not mad”, he said shortly, irritated that people would recommend that.

“I know”, Azhar said gently. “But you look depressed. You’re seeing things and people who aren’t there. That’s not healthy”.

“The only person I see everywhere is her. But it’s not really her. It’s my imagination. Or am I not allowed to imagine her either?”

But Azhar took him to a psychiatrist. He cajoled him until he gave in.

He was diagnosed with adjustment disorder. He was told to seek therapy.

He started therapy and felt better. He felt heard and understood. The therapist didn’t judge him and that was a nice change.

Azhar and my therapist are the only two people who love me, he’d think to himself.

Azhar’s prayers, if possible, had gotten longer. His prostration was longer and his tears flowed more liberally than before.

Bilal had stopped praying.

Azhar became even quieter.

Bilal didn’t talk to anyone but Azhar.

Nighat was waiting it out. Young men don’t forget their girlfriends this easily, she would tell herself, he’ll get over it. He can take all the time he needs.

Bilal took a break from work. He joined his father’s business. It was boring work but he didn’t care.

Azhar changed jobs too. He was a very driven person and career was his aphrodisiac.

Their family had gone through something so huge that the cracks kept getting wider. Her sons, who were not close to her anyway, became even more distant. Her husband started spending long hours at work. Her usual pastimes now seemed meaningless to her.

On top of it, Bilal’s nightmares had come back and even though it had just been a week since he had quit therapy, he had again started to show some disturbingly psychotic behavior. He laughed at small stupid jokes. He clung to Azhar all the time except when they were at work. He didn’t eat much and suspected that his food was poisoned.

Azhar took him back to the psychiatrist. Bilal was put on antidepressants.

It has been six months, she thought, why’s he taking so long to get over her? I wish I had seen her. What did she have?

Slowly Bilal improved. But she had a plan already. She knew her son needed a woman. A woman of her choice. A woman who’d give him the comforts of a woman. Who’d bear his kids and serve this family. A woman who’d be as different from Tanya Tariq as could be humanly possible.

She knew she had to speak with Azhar about her thoughts. He barely spoke with her and avoided making eye contact with her. She was sad about Bilal’s heartbreak too but it wasn’t her fault. No son of hers could marry of their choice.

She found him fussing over their fish tank one day.

“Azhar!”

He froze at her voice. His mother’s viciousness would never be forgotten by him. She could try to be a person again but he had seen the snake in her eyes. She could strike anytime someone wasn’t watching. She took no prisoners.

“Azhar!” She called again.

“Hmm”.

“Can we talk?”

“Sure. Go ahead”!

She knew how to get his attention.

“It’s about Bilal”.

He straightened up immediately, turned around and looked at her with a weird look in his face,

“What about him? Do you need to take his life from him a second time?”

“No”, she said slowly and quietly, “I wanted to ask you if it would be a good idea that we look for a girl for him”.

He stared at her incredulously then burst out laughing. His high-pitched, mirthless laugh that he solely reserved for his fraud of a mother always irked her but she was used to it.

“Why? Because she will be a replacement for his girlfriend? You are a master manipulator, Ami “.

He was smart as a whip, just like her. She was truly proud of her intelligent, shrewd as a fox son. But to him she said,

“No. But because there is a girl that I liked a lot for you. She is very smart. Very intelligent. Has completed her masters in home economics. Very pretty too. Nice family, albeit a little strapped for cash. I had wanted to ask her for you but I know that we both want what’s best for Bilal and so I thought I should run this by you”.

Oh, mother! He thought. This innocent talk is all wasted on me. You’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And we’ve all seen that. You could keep refurbishing your clothing but I’ve seen your ugly face and your thirst for blood. You’ll always be a wolf.

“Ami! I think you should ask Bilal. May be make him a part of the process. He might feel a little better about it then. Right now, I have no particular feelings for anyone’s wedding”.

He turned around, shook the jar with fish food in it and threw some more in the tank. Many fish came forward to claim it. One was particularly fast and could kill for the food. He lovingly called it Ami.

CHAPTER 20:

Bilal kept himself busy. Since everything happened, he kept himself occupied. He had become scared of his mind that took him to dark places and deep ditches. He hated his memory, so weak when it came to things about money and business and family, but so cruelly sharp when it came to Tanya and what was and what could have been.

Her lovely face would appear next to him in moments of emotional destitute.

“Why’re you here?” He’d ask.

“Just checking on you”, she flicked her hair.

“I need to focus”.

“No, you need to look at me”.

“If I look at you, I won’t get anything done”.

“That’s the plan”, she’d say coyly and then burst out laughing.

He made a swipe towards her hair that he liked to tug on so much but there was nothing. His finger rubbed against his thumb with air in between.

Does she miss me too? He’d ask himself.

May be she is already dating someone else. A doctor. Someone deserving of her. As smart as her. As lovely as her. As……

He’d stay awake at night. Azhar had started sleeping with him again and he felt comforted. When he was a child, he used to grab a lock of Azhar’s hair in his fingers before going to sleep. When Azhar moved out of their shared bedroom he had a very hard time getting over this sleep ritual.

He had started to do it again. He couldn’t help it. Azhar knew that he was doing it again. He pretended to be asleep as Bilal twirled his hair in his fingers all night long, wide awake, thinking of Tanya.

Azhar wanted to ask him so many questions about her. Her name, her hobbies, her friends. But Bilal didn’t talk about her ever. He didn’t want to open the wound again.

So Azhar became the same big brother again that he had been when they were growing up. And Bilal became the same baby brother again. Scared of his mother, shy of everyone and only able to trust Azhar.

“Bilal, busy? May I come in?” she came in, calling his name.

“Ami? Come in! You don’t have to ask”, he smiled at her. Azhar could be upset with her but he couldn’t be. After all, why should he be upset with her when he had sacrificed everything to be with her and his family!

“Can I talk to you about something? Something that you might find important enough to close your laptop for”, she suggested gently, patting his shoulder.

“Sure! What’s up?”

“Look at this”. She whipped out a photo of a girl.

Bilal froze. Sometimes he believed everything that Azhar said about Ami. Sadistic, egotistical, narcissistic, someone who fed on melancholy and affliction, an ice queen with talons that had a venom so strong in them that no one survived them.

“What do you think?” She asked.

What do I think, he thought to himself. Tell me, Ami, what is it that you think that I think. Mothers can tell that normally. They can tell what their children are thinking. Sometimes they know even when the child doesn’t know. But since you asked, I’ll tell you. I’m thinking that you birthed me to hate me, fight me and defeat me. You raised me to kill me, blind me and behead me. You are now trying to breathe life into me again so you can play your sick game again. This will continue, Ami! Because you’re the mother I love beyond reason and I’m the son who will never measure up.

But to her he said,

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to think”.

“Her name is Maha”.

“That’s a pretty name”.

“Isn’t it?” She smiled broadly and said excitedly. “Your father kept mispronouncing it last night. I told him he’ll have to get it straight before she gets here”. She laughed at her own silly joke.

So you’ve decided already, he thought looking at the picture. That this stranger will be my wife? If I was Azhar I’d ask what she does, where she went to school, if she has dreams and aspirations. But I’m Tanya’s fallen lover so I won’t ask any mundane questions. Because the brightest jewel from the deepest trenches of the earth would not equal Tanya. The most coveted pearl in all of the oceans would not be as precious as Tanya’s smile. And I know you might have said that she was just this ordinary girl, going to an ordinary school, but she was mine. In a world where I haven’t had many people to call mine, she was mine. And you took her. Without thinking how it would kill me over and over, you took her.

“Bilal!” She shook his shoulder. “Are you listening? You heard me, right?”

“Yes, yes, I did”, he said, nodding vigorously.

“I’ll leave her photo here. Her mother will call me tomorrow in hopes of an answer. But no rush! You can take a few days to say yes. And if you like, you can meet her too”.

Ami, his heart started bleeding again. Thanks for the few days. I need them to mourn my dead dreams one last time. Thanks for letting me meet her. The woman who will probably be my wife. But can I ask you to give me permission to see Tanya, just once? Can I see her? Just one last time? Before I die forever?

He looked up to say he didn’t need to meet her but she had left. As always. She had said what she had to say and had left.

Shortly after, Azhar entered. His only friend. The only one who knew he needed him when he needed him.

“What’s going on, buddy?” He slapped his right shoulder and crashed on the bed, flipping through the latest Sports Illustrated.

“Ugh!” He made a face, “Can’t believe I was so in awe of Tyra Banks in her heyday. She looks horrendous in this one. Here, look”.

Bilal looked with interest.

“Hey who’s that?” Before Bilal could comment on Tyra, Azhar picked up the girl’s picture from the nightstand.

He wolf-whistled.

“Pretty girl! Who is she?”

“Do you like her?” Bilal asked seriously.

“Nah! Looks don’t do it for me. I need to know what’s in here”, he pointed to his head, “and in here”, he pointed to his chest.

“I didn’t know you were into breasts so much”, Bilal said teasing him, even though he understood what Azhar meant.

“Yes breasts are important. But I was talking about her heart”, Azhar said, taking his cheek in stride and owning it.

Bilal looked at his brother fondly. Girls must feel weird, he thought, when they leave their family for someone else. I’m a guy and I feel marriage will put us all apart from each other.

“So who is she?” Azhar asked again curiously.

“Who do you think she is?” He answered with a question.

“Is she a beauty queen? A model? An actress? Somebody’s bride-to-be?” He said, winking roguishly.

“Ami wants to marry me to her”, he said coming over to the bed and sitting next to Azhar, resignedly.

“You have a say in this. If you don’t like her, say no”, Azhar said.

“I don’t like her. I won’t like anyone. No one can be like her”.

“That pretty, huh”? Azhar said, thinking fast of how to distract Bilal from his ex’s thoughts.

“She wasn’t pretty”, Bilal said, looking into space, his memory conjuring up an image that was fast becoming his favorite recollection of her breathtaking presence. Tanya in his arms, weakening, letting him take over, her shirt falling off her shoulders, a shadow of her breasts visible, his mouth urgently exploring her neck and then trying to delve deeper when she pushed him away laughing and covered herself before he could go any further. How could another woman entrance him like that? She was a sorceress with spells that knew no remedy. He will always be under her spell.

“She wasn’t pretty”, he turned to Azhar and said with a sad smile, “she wasn’t pretty. But she was one in a million. Can you tell how special she was?”

Azhar looked at his sad brother and felt the sadness in his heart too. Why did he love her? Why did he have to go through this? Love is torture, he thought angrily. It wreaks everything in its path.

“Will you marry this one just because Ami wants you to?” He asked Bilal.

“Why not?” Bilal said, shrugging his shoulders and laughing with what seemed like tears and grief in his voice, “At least Ami will he happy.”

“What about you?”

“Me?” He looked at his older brother, handsome like a movie star, smart like a statesman, stubborn like the wind and persistent like a spoiled child and felt jealous of his indifference to rules and his disregard for their mother, “I don’t matter, Azhar. In all of this, I don’t matter”.

6 Comments

  1. A lot of people have said it’s weird that she paid but they had some oddities that were all their own. Stay tuned for why he left his studies. Regarding what she sees in him! Nothing that either of them see in each other particularly. Just great connection and chemistry from the jump. Loads of it was sexual but a larger piece was purely emotional and a soulmate type of connection.

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  2. I would love to see answers to the questions Samina raised……..”why has he left his studies incomplete, why is he so casual about his career, doesn’t seem to have much self respect( always letting the girl pay ) what are his strong points, what does Tanya see in him besides physical attraction”…..great read!

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  3. This is a 200,000 word novel so stay tuned. Also, I don’t believe in finding a pathology for why people choose different courses in life. Some people like to go to school and some don’t. Also, reasoning why love happened cheapens it. They have an intense and deep relationship. A lot of it is physical and doesn’t take away from the emotional aspect of it. Thanks for reading. I appreciate the feedback.

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  4. Character building seems to be your strong point. Very impressed with the portrayal of all the characters specially the mother. I can actually relate to it as I knew someone like her in many ways. Bilal’s character needs more of your concentration. There are some blanks to be filled in like ‘why has he left his studies incomplete, why is he so casual about his career, doesn’t seem to have much self respect( always letting the girl pay ) what are his strong points, what does Tanya see in him besides physical attraction etc etc…

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