All’s Fair…. Part 4

CHAPTER 31:

He had feared that she’d be too tired to do rounds the next day but she was there. Bright and early.

“Hello”, he went over and gave her a friendly smile.

She kept looking at the phone in her hand. He was a little taken aback at this obvious dismissal but then realized that she probably hadn’t heard him.

“Hey! How are you?” He asked again.

She looked up finally. She wore an all black outfit with a weird feministic slogan about patriarchy on the shirt. He took more of her in today than he had all day the day before.

She was a short girl, barely five foot two inches with a typical Pakistani complexion. Not light, not dark. It was the color of indigenous Pakistanis and had warm tones and hues that were generally sexy and intensely appealing.

She had a clear gaze with big black eyes with a blue background. She had a full mouth and an oval face.

Her hair was the like the wind, rearing its head for a storm of epic proportions. Wild, unruly and all over.

At first glance, she was just like everyone else around her. But then she stood out. Slowly and clearly. She stood out as the celestial presence that she was.

He had always been a generally confident person but the look that she wore in response to his greeting baffled him.

“Hello”, she finally said and started walking towards Saima.

Wow! Talk about forgetting a favor! He said to himself. Saved her life yesterday and she’s acting like nothing happened. Whatever!

Rounds started shortly and Tanya was phenomenal.

She was an astute student, a profound presence and looked skillful in how she examined and evaluated her patients. She was also liked and respected by men and women many years older than her. Her lapse the day before seemed to have spurred her into an excellent demonstration of her finesse as a clinician and he was impressed. Beyond reason. Beyond any reason. She could weave a spell with the way she put together clinical pictures and created bridging diagnoses. He was awed. May be all doctors are this smart, he thought, but she is one special smart doctor.

She was unaware of his constant staring at her, his watching her lips move, his making a mental note of her body movements.

When rounds were over Saima came to her and whispered,

“That IT weirdo”.

“What about him?” She asked waiting to hear Saima confess love for him. He was very good looking and most women were enchanted by him.

“Kept staring at you”, Saima said, chewing gum and winking at her.

She didn’t want to say anything about him or his. She had a feeling Bilal had told him about her and now he was going out of the way to be nice to her and save her all the embarrassment that would’ve happened if she had received the safety first alerts through her mentor. She shrugged her shoulders and said,

“I’m very stare-worthy, don’t you think?”

“For sure!” Saima said, smacking the gum around her mouth.

Azhar was perplexed. They had spent so much time together yesterday and now she was acting like she didn’t know him. Where did the camaraderie and the beginning of a friendship go?

If he was honest with himself, he had fallen in love. He had started to feel uneasy around her and her silence. He liked that she was so reserved but didn’t want her to have any qualms chatting her heart out with him.

He texted her,

“You said you’ll help me with the training”, he typed.

“Who is this?” She typed back.

“Azhar”.

“I’ll be there”.

Why did she promise to help him? She thought angrily. She could’ve easily let people be miserable with his stupid software. Why was it her job to redeem him and his ways?

She walked down the hallway to his office when she heard someone wailing. A young woman, around her own age, was crying her lungs out.

“What happened?” Tanya asked her urgently , getting down on her knees, and peering at her young face.

“They are saying”, she hiccuped, “That my husband will die”.

“Why? What happened?”

“He took poison”.

“Poison? Why? Accidentally?” Organophosphate poisoning is very common in the rural farmlands of Pakistan.

She cried bitterly.

“No. Not accidentally. He tried to kill himself for her. His lover”.

His lover?

The woman continued to wail,

“I have no one. No one to call my own. I didn’t even confront him. My father did. And now he has killed himself”.

“What’s his name? I can check on him for you”, Tanya said quickly.

The woman gave him a name. Tanya ran into the intensive care unit to check on him.

The ICU was full of ancillary staff, house officers and attending physicians. She asked one of her friends about the patient,

“He’s fine. Coming around”.

Relieved she ran out to tell the woman that her husband was okay. She saw someone kneeling next to her, talking to her.

“Your husband’s fine”. She told the woman breathlessly.

The woman looked relieved. Tears of gratitude ran down her cheeks. She quietly sobbed. Tanya turned to Azhar,

“What are you doing here?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“You didn’t show up so I came to see if you were okay”.

“If I was okay?” She asked, chewing her tongue.

“Yes. You know, it had been thirty minutes since we texted….”

“Wait a minute”, she raised her hand to quiet him, “you don’t check on me, you don’t come out of your office to look for me, and you certainly don’t make sure that I’m okay. None of that. You do none of that”.

He was stunned into silence. What did he say that she was so angry? He would have loved for someone to check on him every once in a while. Besides Bilal no one checked on him. In his so far lonely life his brother had been the one solitary beacon of light always. Why was she angry? He would give anything to have someone worry for him.

She marched past him into the office and sat in the same chair that she had occupied the day before.

Azhar came after her. He had lived a life of subtle insults. Ami usually talked in sarcasm and Abu was quick to point out the flaws in them. They had always been forbidden to love, cry, sulk or brood. Bilal used to cry a lot as a child and each time he cried, Abu asked him if he was a girl. So he was used to it. Backhanded comments were regularly dished out to them. They could never do anything right or proper. Ami found faults with how they ate, slept, walked or even spoke. So this wasn’t new. But he hadn’t expected to receive anger in response for care. Bilal had never responded with anger when he cared for him. Even at his worst, when his nerves were stretched taut, Bilal had loved him in return for love.

But Bilal is my special brother, he thought sadly, he has always loved me, even when no one else did.

She saw him come in. His face was red. She felt bad that she snubbed him but it felt good. A part of her, sadistic in its hate for Bilal and his brother, found pleasure in it.

He sat down and busied himself with his computer. She grabbed one of her colleagues and started showing them the software.

He stole a few glances at her. She didn’t look angry now. What made her so angry? He felt humiliated and belittled.

Soon everyone was busy in their work, including Azhar and Tanya. No one cared about anything but the work.

It started to get dark when Dr. Safdar entered with a young man with medium height and a receding hairline.

“Hey guys! Before you leave for tonight I wanted to introduce you to Nyle. He’s our new unit pharmacist”.

In spite of their animosity over that morning’s spat that had developed to a thick loathing for each other over the last many hours, Azhar and Tanya immediately exchanged a look. They both looked away, Azhar smiling a little, Tanya embarrassed at sharing a secret with him.

“He ratted you out”, he texted her.

“I know”. She texted back.

“Should we ask him why he did that?”

“No.”

“You’re way too decent and forgiving”.

“I’m none of that. Just don’t have time for petty people”.

“But imagine if I hadn’t warned you, you would’ve had to deal with all that today”.

“So? Are you saying that I owe you?”

“No. If you addressed those reports today during rounds then how would you have saved so many lives?”

She couldn’t help smiling indulgently. How was he so similar to Bilal? They even texted the same way.

“I guess I owe you”.

“No. You don’t. But should we ask him?”

“You can. I’m not getting into it”.

“I can’t ask him. It would look weird. Why am I involved, people might ask”.

“But I’m not a confrontational person and I don’t think I can even carry a conversation like that in front of everyone”.

“I say you start it and I’ll back you up”.

“You will?”

“Of course. I promise!”

You promise? She stared at the words. I hope your promising is better than your brother’s.

“Excuse me, Nyle?” She said, tentatively. Nyle looked at her.

“Did you submit almost a hundred safety first reports against me yesterday after hours? They were all about the same issue”.

Nyle looked stumped for a second. He quickly recovered and said,

“They were all for different issues”.

“No”, she said slowly, looking at Azhar pointedly, “They were all about medication errors and you know that I messed up yesterday on ten patients due to not realizing the same name banner”.

“I wouldn’t have complained a hundred times if it wasn’t a hundred mistakes of different types”.

She again looked at Azhar and felt like she saw some sweat beads on his forehead.

She swore under her breath. How many times were these brothers going to throw her under the bus? Another weasel, she steamed internally. Like brother, like brother. I’m not my father’s daughter if I don’t get this little wreck of an engineer. His brother can get away but he won’t.

“Azhar helped me sort all of them”, she said patiently, “Azhar! Why don’t you tell him how we had to work for hours on the complaints?”

Azhar cleared his throat. He had suddenly started to feel nervous. Why did he egg her on? She’s a dangerous one, he thought with increasing apprehension at being put on the spot. She likely kills people with that glare. But this Nyle guy looks pretty formidable too. These hospital people are so scary-looking.

“Azhar?” She called him again, “Tell him. Why’re you quiet?”

“Actually”, he said, scratching his head sheepishly, “in a way Nyle is right”, he looked at her steely look, “and in a way you’re right too”.

“Azhar!” Nyle said politely, “I’d be happy to withdraw some complaints if they were all about the same thing”.

“No, they were not about the same thing”, he said, gaining some confidence and deciding to side with the truth. He knew that she shouldn’t have been reported so brutally but she was also not right in saying that they were all the same complaint.

“They were not?” She asked savagely.

“No!” He said, logging into the program again and opening his inbox, “They aren’t the same thing. Like this complaint is about normal saline. This one is about Ceftriaxone. This one is about Advil. This one here is about Artemether….”

“Stop it!” She said, standing up and looking at him with wild anger, “They’re all some form of medication. One is a fluid replacement regimen. So they’re all pharmacy errors essentially”.

Everyone was quiet. People’s eyes moved from Nyle to Azhar and then rested on Tanya.

“Dr. Tariq! May I say something?” Nyle asked fearfully.

“No, please”, she turned to him. “Why did you complain like that? Were you playing with the software? Why? Or did you really think I made so many errors?”

“Please let me explain!” Nyle said, fumbling.

“There’s nothing to explain. I’m not angry with you. You did what you thought was right”, she turned to Azhar and said viciously, “And thank you for having my back. Whatever that means to you”.

And with that she stomped out of the room. Azhar was flabbergasted at what had happened. But even though his mind was a mix of emotions, he realized that watching her walk down that hallway was fast becoming a thing that he had started to look forward to.

CHAPTER 32:

Even though the day didn’t end well, he had a smile on his face.

She’s a feisty one, he thought lovingly.

And smart, he reminded himself.

And oh so sexy! How’s she so ordinary-looking but so sexy. Her eyes draw me in so badly.

Azhar whistled as he entered home. Ami was sitting on the couch in the family room.

“Azhar!”

“Yes!”

“You don’t greet?”

“Hello”.

“Come here. Sit with me. Can we talk about something?”

Oh no, he groaned. Ami always had an agenda when she showed affection.

“Sure”. He sat opposite her.

She looked at him. Her favorite son. Her golden boy. The reason behind her putting up with a bad marriage and a lackluster husband. Azhar was the only man she had ever found worthy of any respect or love.

Nighat was many things but stupid she was not. If Bilal, the son whom she didn’t even think about as much, could not go unnoticed, then Azhar certainly couldn’t. He was the center of her universe. She knew something was up with him.

Azhar looked at his shoes while trying to fathom the reason behind his mother’s conceit and narcissism. She had always been an unhappy woman. A big deal of her gloom originated from ingratitude. He knew what she was going to say. He knew that now Bilal was out of the way with a mediocre girl, she was back on her mission to look for another mediocre girl for him.

Mediocrity was his mother’s favorite trait in people. This made her feel better. She had never faced competition in her life. She constantly compared herself to people on the basis of looks and money. Azhar suspected that she didn’t want educated women for him or his brothers because that was where he really sensed her insecurity. She didn’t like women who worked outside the home. She didn’t like women who worked inside the home with exceptional finesse. Women who surrounded her had to be dull and unimpressive. That’s how she liked her company. His mother’s spirit animal was the peacock. Preening and showing off.

No human being is mediocre, he heard his own words. Hashir and Aman had spent enough time with his mother to have become elitist and classist. He had told them just a few days ago that no one is universally exceptional and neither is anyone universally mediocre.

Maha isn’t mediocre, he told himself. I’ve started to use Ami’s verbiage, he shuddered at the thought.

“Out with it, Ami. I’m really tired”, he finally said.

“Some might argue that sitting with a parent can be refreshing”, she said, attempting to spew guilt and fearing his anger at the same time.

Oh God! What did she want from him?

“Ami, really! I have to go to the gym. I haven’t been for four days and look at this”, he pointed to his belly, “Look how fat I have gotten”.

Nighat laughed. Azhar was her match in humor, fearlessness and personality. Her other sons could never be like him. He was sitting here, knowing full well that he was perfect, and still being self-deprecating. That was an attractive quality of his. Her husband, unfortunately, lacked any charm or charisma and still thought the world of himself.

Azhar laughed too.

“What is it?” He felt close to his mother who seemed human when she laughed. He came and sat next to her, “What’s up? Seeing girls for me again?”

Ah, he was her son alright. Smart, sharp and exceptionally gifted. He knew.

She immediately brightened up even more.

“Wanna see some photos? Just got them”.

He smiled at her excitement. What made her so harsh and stubborn, he thought while love for his mother touched him for a fleeting second.

“Not today. Today I’ve already seen the most beautiful woman in the world”.

He thought of Tanya as he said that. Nighat smiled. Of course she was the most beautiful woman in the world to her sons. She felt great. She’ll find the best looking girl for Azhar. Only the best for her son. He was worth the best. A girl who was beautiful with just enough brains to keep her son happy. The rest of it? She had it all covered.

CHAPTER 33:

It was like pulling teeth talking to her.

“So today was the last exam?” He asked, not particularly interested but making a weak attempt at small talk.

“Yes” she replied in the longest sentence she had spoken yet.

Gosh! She’s dull. He wanted to slam the phone but persisted.

“What are you going to do now? Look for jobs?”

“Jobs?”

“Yes! Jobs! You know like how people get dressed in the morning, go somewhere that they call work and then bring a paycheck at the end of the month. You know, a job?”

“I know what a job is”. She replied coldly.

“Oh”, then why’re you being so dumb, he thought furiously.

“I’m not going to look for a job because I’m getting married soon”, she said as if she was getting married to someone else.

“You mean WE are getting married soon”, he corrected her.

She giggled. A tinkling, coy, absurd giggle.

Bilal sighed. How he hated that cheesy giggle! Did she think she could turn him on with that ?

She kept giggling. Someone else was also laughing in the background.

“Is there someone else there too?” He asked, surprised at someone listening into their conversation.

“Yes”, she paused for a second, “my cousin is here and you’re on speaker”.

What the hell! He didn’t know where his mother found Maha but he was sure that girls like her are usually found in high schools.

“Bilal!” The cousin chimed in. “I’m here too, your sister-in-law”.

“Hi, sister-in-law”, he said fuming.

“Hi. How are the preparations coming along? Someone told me you’re wearing black?”

“I haven’t picked out my outfit yet”, he said, hating her forwardness.

“Hurry up then because we will be there”, she said amidst raucous laughter.

I hope you, especially just you, fall off the stairs and break your leg for being so annoying and miss my wedding, he cursed at her.

“Okay Bilal , we have to go shopping actually”, Maha said, “I can call you when I come back”.

“No that’s fine. I’m going out with my brothers also tonight”, he lied smoothly.

“Where are you going?” She asked curiously.

“Erm…never mind. When you become my wife then I’ll be sure to leave my log book in your purse”.

He hung up.

His fiancé, Maha.

The woman he was going to be spending his life with.

Why was she so boring?

Her hand was in his and he was asking her, “Tanya! What if we fight often after we get married?”

“I’ll leave you” she said easily.

“I won’t let you”.

“Okay then I won’t”, she said. “But promise me we will have the most amazing make up sex afterwards”.

He laughed.

“You’re something. Don’t you ever feel shy talking about sex with your future husband?”

“Nope. Sex is natural”.

“It is. And I have a feeling that with you it’s going to be divine too”, he said pulling her in and nuzzling her neck.

The door opened with a bang. Azhar was standing there.

“Bilal! You don’t answer? I’ve been calling you for ten minutes”.

“What’s up?”

“Nothing! Let’s go for a drive. It’s Friday night, I’m off tomorrow and too wired to go to sleep or eat at home”.

“Let’s go”.

Azhar thought of sharing something about Tanya with Bilal but it felt like rubbing salt into his bother’s wounds. Bilal had just lost the love of his life and Azhar was in no rush. Also, he didn’t want to jinx it. Love had made him superstitious too.

Bilal was definitely the driver in the family. He had been driving since 14 years old and was amazing. He weaved his car effortlessly in Karachi’s traffic and they finally came to Boat Basin where they found a nice restaurant and sat down to eat.

Karachi is nothing if not for its food, and particularly, roadside food. Every major city in Pakistan has a unique characteristic. Karachi’s is food, cosmopolitanism, an uber progressive people, a faint undercurrent of rebellion and a loud overtone of fashion. Karachi is the original city of lights. It has a rich culture and has imbibed even more from the immigrant population that has settled here over the years. It has some religious minorities and many Muslim ethnic groups that call it home. Karachi embraces all. It’s the one of the most diverse, an extremely loving city of Pakistan while being the most resilient and the most headstrong. Karachi is a temptress and a mother. Karachi is a song that enchants. It’s an embrace that holds. People of Karachi live in a whirwind of color, culture, diversity, food, languages and people.

Not only does Karachi have the seaport hence the famous beach, it’s also a huge cultural phenomenon. It has given birth to many underground hard rock and metal bands which keep switching from mainstream to hidden to underground to mainstream depending on the ruling political party. It never could develop its own film industry, unlike Lahore, but its television has proved to be the hippest and most trend-setting. Karachi also has a huge theatre life and many new artists are born everyday. Many art galleries open in Karachi and it also boasts its own arts schools. It also enjoys its status as the flagship city for many outstanding medical, engineering and business schools. Fashion thrives in Karachi as an industry and a hobby. In short, Karachi is a city that is like any other contemporary cosmopolitan city and the vibe is somewhat New York, somewhat Toronto, somewhat Tokyo and somewhat Los Angeles. But the soul of Karachi is all its own. That can’t be found anywhere else.

But nothing, not even Karachi’s stupendous representation of the arts, fashion, entertainment and education, beats the food in Karachi. That is what remains Karachi’s attraction and when it comes to food, the city is amazingly well-known for its street food.

Azhar and Bilal had grown up on street food. They had eaten bun kebabs for many days on end when sometimes they had enough money saved in a month. They had never spared a single eatery, even with abysmal reviews as they believed in being the judge themselves. Since they lived so close to the beach, they had had access to some of the best eat-outs and even had their favorite spots.

This particular spot was Azhar’s favorite. It used to be Bilal’s favorite too but he had been here so many times with Tanya that it had become bittersweet.

This was a roadside restaurant. Like there are many along Boat Basin. On one side is the blaring traffic of Karachi, juxtaposed with lounge chairs and tables on the other side where food is served right off the skewer. Because Karachi saw a lot of immigration from Afghanistan and Iran after the Afghan war and the Soviet collapse, there is a lot of barbecue that’s always in vogue and being improvised. This particular place however served authentic tandoori chicken and Bihari kababs, a Karachi thing if one ever was. The smoke from the hot plates and grills is aromatic and enticing. The breads, exotic and flavored, are a sophisticated selection unlike what some might think of the bread. Even the breads in Karachi have a cultural and ethnic history. People gravitate to these joints. The food is fresh, made in front of the people who will consume it later and is more delicious than what is served in many swanky, upscale restaurants. It’s also not cheap. Food is one of the most lucrative businesses in Karachi and special attention is paid to that one thing that will make them stand out by business owners.

As they looked around for a waiter, contemplating their order while scanning the hand-written menu, Azhar spotted her.

She had her back to him but he knew it was her. The same dark mane of hair, the same brisk gait, the same black outfit that she had worn that morning. She probably sensed someone’s eyes on her. She turned around. Her friends stood chatting loudly, trying to decide whether this place was good enough or they should continue their search for better barbecued chicken.

Their eyes met. She didn’t look surprised. She didn’t look angry. She didn’t look sad. She looked at him with a blank stare. Bilal had his back to her. But even if Azhar could, he wouldn’t have told Bilal. That would break the spell. She was looking at him and yes, her gaze was devoid of emotion but she must feel something to see him like that? He couldn’t look away, a helpless captive in her eyes.

Tanya had feared this day would come when she’d see him again. Her tormentor lived close to her place. She had secretly wished for him to see her while having a great time with her friends, telling jokes, people laughing at her jokes. She had so desperately wanted him to catch her in a moment that showed him that she had moved on and life was good for her. But life hadn’t worked out in her favor recently. Here she was, with a bunch of friends who were arguing about barbecue versus fried chicken, staring at his brother, half-willing him to turn around and see her but also praying for another opportunity when he’d see her wearing her best clothes, in makeup, with a little jewelry on, and repent leaving her. She felt betrayed by life. It had taken every hope for a dignified ending from her. As she was transfixed at Azhar, Bilal got up and turned around to pick up his sweatshirt that had fallen on the ground after he had hung it carelessly on the chair’s back.

He picked it up and straightened up, shaking it as he tried to put it back on and all of a sudden, just like that, their eyes met.

There she was. The woman he had given his heart to and now walked with an empty shell instead. She was looking at him with those black eyes, that honest face and the guileless beauty that seemed to have been enhanced by the tragedy that he had inflicted on her. They looked at each other for many minutes, Bilal transfixed just like Azhar was behind him, when all of a sudden the stars crossed, the sky growled angrily, lightning flashed and the sound of thunder broke the spell.

CHAPTER 34:

His nights had become pure torture. He would lay in bed for hours, reminiscing about their days together , counting the days since he had last seen her and wondering what she was up to. He stayed wide awake most nights and some nights he drifted off to sleep in the early hours of morning, when it was almost time to wake up.

A part of him had been proud of his self-control. That he hadn’t called her or stalked her. That he hadn’t texted her or tried to contact her. That he hadn’t really hated his mother as much as she deserved.

But last night had been a test of his nerves,self-restraint and fortitude. He had seen her, in a crowd of people of different colors, and she had still stood out just as the first time when they had met each other in a group of strangers and had known they were each other’s. He had sensed her presence in the air around him, it had floated to him on the wind that carried her fragrance to him. Tanya had breathed the same air as him last night. Briefly, but she had.

He made empty plans of running into her again, holding her hand, opening his heart to her, kissing her and ending it with some sort of closure.

Closure? That’s a weird word, he thought. Some might say that two jilted lovers never want closure. They always want to live in the “what if” and “I know he/she couldn’t help it”. Closure would destroy our reality, the parallel reality of our love. That we will not be with each other but will always love each other.

Morning came and he finally found his eyes getting heavy, his heart asking for a break from the pain, birds chirping outside singing a sad song of unrequited purpose and lost love.

Across his room his brother had a sleepless night too. He had never been one to lose sleep over girls or friends. Bilal had taken so much of his heart and love that there wasn’t ever much room for anything else. Bilal’s breakup had mangled the already rotting carcass of this family. But most of all, Azhar had been affected. He had never thought that their family would come undone over this. His sweet brother who had faced the worst neglect and indifference from their mother had gone quiet. He had become a shadow of his former self. He had initially lost and then gained weight rapidly. He had now learned to bluff them constantly by laughing louder than anyone else, working harder, keeping busier. Azhar had gone through his brother’s break up with him and it felt like his soul had been scarred too.

But Tanya had taken some of the pain away. She had been the balm that he had needed. Everyone needs love, he thought. But very few get it. May be I won’t get her but I need her.

It was a sign to him that he had seen her the night before. Her eyes blank, her gaze clear as usual, a thousand chattering people couldn’t drown out the words that came out of her silence all the time. He smiled. He couldn’t wait for Monday and see her again. He contemplated texting her but knew that she had a quick temper and he really wanted to be careful with her. He didn’t want her to think that he was just one of those men who pursue girls.

Many blocks away lay the girl of the two brothers’ dreams, fast asleep. She had spent the entire night crying and reliving the past. She had made peace with the reality eventually but the reality was that Bilal lived in the same world as she. She was bound to run into him. And life couldn’t always leave her feeling like a fool. So she was going to move on. One of these days. May be not today or tomorrow, but one of these days, she will apply for a residency in the USA and move on. She felt good about her plan. She was fast asleep after that.

Monday came sooner than she had wanted. She woke up, threw a pair of jeans on and pulled out an old tee to go with it. She then wore her clogs and got in her car.

Her mother had given her a new car for her graduation. Another distraction, she smiled sadly as she got in it. Everyone wants to make it up to me but nothing can. Nothing can.

As she was parking her Honda Accord in the physician parking lot she saw a RAV4 park next to her.

She walked towards her medical unit when someone called her name from behind,

“Tanya!”

Bilal? She whipped around. Her heart started thumping wildly trying to break out of her chest. A rainbow of colors danced before her eyes temporarily and then she realized it was Azhar.

He was walking towards her, almost running.

“Please I wanna talk to you. Just listen to me”.

She was mesmerized at the similarity in their voices and how they talked. Are siblings usually so similar?

He came up to her, slightly out of breath but smiling ear to ear. However, his smile slowly faded at the sardonic look on her face.

“Good morning!” He said, again stammering a little.

She kept looking at him questioningly.

He looked around, making sure the parking lot wasn’t too occupied. She didn’t care how many octaves she added to her otherwise soft voice when she was angry.

“Actually I wanted to apologize for Friday”, he added sheepishly.

She continued her hard stare.

“I would’ve come over and apologized when I saw you Friday night at….”

“It’s okay.” She said, not making eye contact. “It’s okay. It wasn’t fair to expect you to fight my battle. You had helped me with the complaints and queries. I’m glad you didn’t help me with Nyle. I’m learning to get back on my feet. But sometimes, I fall again”.

It was 7 in the morning. The night sky hadn’t completely left and the morning sky hadn’t completely claimed its magnificence. There was an opulence in the mist that surrounded the parking lot. Tired physicians were leaving the hospital after a night shift, getting into cars . Some were coming in. There was a little buzz of early morning activity. But overall there was a stillness in the air that reminded him of some mornings when Bilal and he would wake up and go to their garden to play badminton. It was one of those mornings. Crisp, new and warm.

“It’s nice today, right?” He fell into step behind her. “I love mornings. They are my favorite part of the day or late at night when I sometimes think about…..” He stopped abruptly. She didn’t notice.

“It’s nice”, she conceded.

“Do you always park here?” He asked, casually.

“Hmm. But I’ll warn you that if they catch you parking here they’ll fine you”.

“Catch me? They told me to park here”.

“This is a physicians parking lot. I’m surprised they let you”.

“Well”, he said, slightly insulted by her haughtiness, “Physicians can spare one spot for the guy who will change their lives for the better”.

“I’m sorry”, she said, not sounding apologetic at all, “It’s a thing of principle. If you believe in them”.

“What do I believe in? Thing or principle?”

“Never mind”.

He continued to walk with her and then blurted out,

“Do you think you’re better than me because you’re a doctor?”

She looked at him, walking still, wide-eyed and a little amused,

“No. Why would I be better than you because I’m a doctor and you’re….. what are you? What do you do?”

“IT guy. I have introduced myself before”.

She found it hard to control her laugh at his constant referral to himself as the IT guy.

“Okay, IT guy! I don’t think I’m better than you. In fact, you can ask anyone. May be ask your family. They’ll tell you I’m beneath most people”.

“Why would I ask my family? My uncles are doctors and so celebrated as if they won the Olympics. I respect doctors a lot but we are all equal. Why shouldn’t we respect each other and be one?”

“Many people don’t think like you”.

He shrugged.

“I don’t care about anyone but I don’t think like that. My brother, Bilal, doesn’t think like that either”.

Her face changed many colors, none noticed by him.

They were now entering the main hospital compound and walking towards the medicine units.

“Some people have weird ideas of superiority and being above others. I’m glad you don’t have them”, she said softly.

“My mom has them”, for some reason he couldn’t keep that from coming out. “My mom has such ideas and she worships privilege and class and status quo. Not me. Not Bilal. I don’t know about Abu but Bilal and I don’t”.

His mother! The woman who owed her every happiness in life.

“I’m glad you didn’t turn out like her then”, she said politely.

“In many things I’m like her”, Azhar said, glad to have a conversation going, “But what’s fair is fair. I’m never afraid to tell her that. My brother liked a girl. My mom said no. I fought for that girl more than my brother did. Two reasons! One I couldn’t see him sad and like he’d die yearning for her. And two, I can’t take my mom bullying people for her own sick agenda. She’s a good woman but she is slightly self-serving. I can’t have that”.

Tanya listened. Silently. There were tears, in some deep dark part of her soul, locked away to come out another day. Not today! Today she had Bilal’s brother with her and she now knew that he didn’t know who she was. And she wasn’t going to give it away. She was thankful almost that he didn’t know. She would’ve found it very hard to continue working in such close proximity with him. Now Azhar was just a stranger. Someone who didn’t know who she was. Someone she’d like to pretend she didn’t know either.

She looked at him with gratitude in her eyes as she went up the steps of Medicine 4.

“I’m very thankful for Friday, Azhar, and for your help before that. You have really been a life saver”.

She did a little wave with her hand and went up the steps to join her friends.

Did she say Azhar, he swooned on the spot. It was the sweetest word she had said the whole time. His name had a completely different ring when she said it. He had never realized it was such an amazing name until she said it. He kept reliving the moment over and over. Then just because he couldn’t help sharing it, he texted Bilal,

“Found your sister-in-law”.

Bilal texted back,

“Now we are talking”.

He laughed to himself and quickly ascended the stairs to settle in his office and then join rounds to see her be the most beautiful doctor he had ever seen.

CHAPTER 35:

Rounds started with the usual team. Azhar had become more comfortable with listening to sad stories of illness and death and had also picked up some medical jargon.

He watched as Tanya relayed the history of a 45 year old male with HIV and drug abuse. His insides turned each time he heard about the many horrors of chronic illnesses and HIV affected him particularly.

A little lightheadedness took over initially. He didn’t think much about it. Then he began to experience an unsteadiness when he moved. Soon he was sweating bullets and felt dizzy. Embarrassment at what was going on and his male instinct of just getting over it kept him from saying anything for about a full hour. But as he started to get dizzier, he scanned the team for any friendly faces who’d help him and realized that he didn’t know anyone as well as he knew Tanya .

They were now in the general ward with twenty beds lined up on each side with remarkably more stable patients than the intensive care unit. Patients were generally able to speak and even report improvement or worsening of symptoms. They all looked hopeful at the potential news of discharge during rounds and he could feel their disappointment when they were told that they might have to stay for longer. The all-encompassing business of disease and health in a hospital did get to him too.

Tanya didn’t have any patients these days in the general ward and therefore stood at the back of the rounding team, taking notes and lab orders that they needed to perform after rounds were done. Her attentiveness was exemplary. She was always so present, her intelligent eyes taking everything in, quickly darting through the computer screen and picking out lab abnormalities and explaining them away.

He inched closer to her and whispered

“Tanya!”

She looked up in amazement and quickly knew that he wasn’t well.

“What’s going on?” She said, alarmed.

He could barely stand by now. She didn’t need him telling her anything.

“Come with me”, she said urgently.

As he moved towards her she quickly filled Saima in on what was happening and grabbed his arm just as he swayed on the spot.

She firmly grasped his hand and led him out of the room, into Dr.Safdar’s air conditioned office.

He quickly sat down as she turned on the air conditioning. Still not feeling well, he put his head on the table.

“What happened? Can you talk?” She asked soothingly.

“I don’t know. I’m just not used to being with so many people in a small space. And it’s so extraordinarily hot too”, he said weakly.

She got water from the cooler in the office and offered him some,

“Drink this. I think you got dehydrated. Look at you sweating like a…..” . She stopped herself from finishing the sentence. It was okay that she referred to herself sweating like a pig but realized that she should probably not use that expression for others whom she didn’t know that well.

“I know”, He said, his humorous voice coming back slowly, “I know. I’m sweating like a pig”.

Tanya burst out laughing. He had the same sense of humor as Bilal. They were both sharp, witty men who never let go of an opportunity of self-deprecating humor.

Azhar looked up at her and smiled,

“Can I have more water?”

“Certainly”. She brought more.

“It gets hot in the ICU but the floors aren’t any better”, she said sympathetically, “I’m sorry you have to help us so much with the electronic record. Some people aren’t getting a hang of it even though you’ve explained to them so many times”.

He sat up straighter,

“It’s okay”, he said more easily than he felt, “some might argue that I should know a lot more about medical jargon than when I started but really, I’m still the blithering fool that I was a few weeks ago”.

She laughed again. He laughed too.

“You laugh too, Tanya? I didn’t think doctors laugh”.

“Doctors laugh”, she immediately came to her people’s defense. “We laugh and cry and party like normal people”.

“That’s good to know”, he said contemplatively.

A few minutes passed. He felt better but wanted to go home. He knew he could and nothing would be severely affected behind him. His colleagues were also attending to rounds in other medical and surgical units and one of them could come over and help.

He didn’t want to quit so early in the day and not see her for the rest of it. But he felt pretty dizzy still.

Finally he said,

“Can you tell them that I went home? I’m really not feeling well”.

“Sure thing”, she said, then added, “I can get you a cab”.

“I’m okay” he said, bathing in the attention that hadn’t come so often in life to him or his brothers, “Will just lie down and have my brothers rub my feet”. He laughed again.

She didn’t laugh this time. She kept looking at her shoes, trying to remain composed and dignified.

Dignity! Will she ever get it back? She was a woman scorned by another woman, rejected by a man, abandoned by love. Dignity is for valiant soldiers, she thought. Who live and die for love and its victory. Dignity isn’t for weaklings like me. I deserve to be insulted at the hands of fate. I should be punished like I have been. Each time I come a little distance from his memory , something repugnantly similar like one of his brothers should be thrown in my way, serving as the next obstacle to get over in order to reclaim some normalcy, some peace and may be even some dignity.

He got up. He quickly sat back down. His head swam when he changed posture. He didn’t feel well. Tanya saw his white as a sheet face and felt like she needed to get someone.

“Stay here, okay?” She told him before stepping out of the room.

A minute later, Dr. Safdar was coming in.

“What’s going on, young man? I’m twice your age and standing. You’re collapsing?”

Azhar was instantly repulsed. This was how his dad talked to them and it was just the most triggering way he could think of speaking to someone. Minimizing his sickness just because he was young was Abu’s modus operandi. Destroying his valid ideas about business models and job searches and career choices because he was younger than him, was Abu’s favorite way of feeling better about himself. He hated this line of reasoning and general conversation so of course he was immediately ticked. He didn’t reply.

“I think he’s just dehydrated”, Dr. Safdar said after looking at him perfunctorily, “You should go home, Azhar. Get some rest. Someone can get you a cab”.

“I’ll call my brother. He will come to get me”, he said.

Tanya stood frozen in time. She wanted to see the love of her life and didn’t want to at the same time.

Azhar was calling him. He called a few times then texted him.

When there had been no response to his text for about fifteen minutes, he tentatively began,

“I know it’s a huge favor. And if you knew me you’d know that I don’t impose on people’s kindness”.

“What is it?” She said abruptly, sensing that he was going to ask her to drop him off.

“Can you drop me in my car and then Bilal can drop you back off here? He’s not picking up the phone or responding to my texts. I’m not feeling well. I want to go home”.

“I’ll drop you”, she said, picking the lesser of the two evils, “and then take a cab back”.

“I can’t let you take a cab”.

“Then I’ll take my car”.

“But then how am I going to come to work tomorrow if my car is here?”

“Listen, Mr. I Don’t Feel Well and Now Everyone Has To Please Me! I didn’t make you sick. I didn’t ask your brother to not pick up your phone. I didn’t recommend that I drop you. So you’re basically asking me for a favor. I’m the one who is leaving work in the middle of the day to help you with going home. You could’ve easily taken a cab but why would you? There is a doctor who is at your beck and call so she’ll drop you. You have a big, burly brother who babysits you probably all the time so he’ll do the rest. What is this entitlement? You want me to drop you? I’ll do it because you’re ill. But I’ll drop you off in my car. Whether you have transport in the morning or not, is not my problem. May be have your brother drop you off in the morning and this way you can have your precious car back.”

He looked at her, wide-eyed and like someone had sucker punched him. Then said,

“You yell way too much for a young person”.

She didn’t say anything. She stepped out of the room, got her bag from the on-call room, came back and barked at him,

“Let’s go”.

Obediently he got up, smiling slightly at the mad rage of the woman he had fallen head over heels with.

CHAPTER 36:

She turned on the air conditioning on full blast in her car. He sat in and immediately felt intimidated. She was never in the driver’s seat in his imagination.

“Where’re we going?”

He gave her his address and she pulled out of the parking lot.

It was the worst summer in many years. But the heat usually is completely tolerable compared to the traffic in Karachi . The constant smoke emitted by the public and private vehicles is the bane of Karachi’s cosmopolitanism. It is one of the busiest cities in the world, purely by virtue of its traffic.

And Tanya wasn’t a great driver! She constantly stopped when she feared someone too close or too fast and riding with her reminded him of thrill rides in theme parks. He was sure a few times that she was going to ram her car in the car ahead of them but they narrowly escaped. She finally broke the silence,

“Are you feeling better?”

“No”. He said weakly.

“Why? Still dizzy?”

“No. Now I’m just scared”.

She laughed the loudest yet. She hadn’t laughed in many days and her laugh took her own self by surprise. She doubled over with laughter and when she looked up they were actually going to go off on the shoulder. She quickly swerved it back and looked at him triumphantly,

“See? Nothing to be worried about. This is a piece of cake for me. I do this everyday”.

“I’m sure you do”, he said, trying to sound brave while gulping with difficulty, “But I’m starting to think that a cab was a better idea”.

“Oh come on!” She scoffed. “I’m the best in our family”.

He had become nauseous with her driving and this ride home had long lost its romance to him. Now he was just worried for their lives.

“Bilal is the best in our family. Superb driver. Self-taught”.

She didn’t say anything. Just looked straight ahead, then,

“This brother of yours, Bilal, sounds very special”.

“He is”, Azhar said proudly. “He is like a son to me. He’s really like everything to me. Some people don’t get our relationship and think that we are codependent. May be we are but if you were born without any adult to depend on, two kids become each other’s anchor”.

She listened. Bilal had never told her much about all the family stuff that Azhar seemed to have no qualms discussing as a matter of fact. Bilal hadn’t ever talked about Azhar as much either. But usually when they were together there wasn’t enough time to talk. They made use of every moment to pay the debt of love. She had never even known his mother in much detail. Just trivial things here and there.

“Sounds like you really take ownership of him. But didn’t you say you fought more for his love than he did? That would make you a very special person. He is probably just another guy”.

Azhar sensed the venom in her voice. There was a scathing quality to her comment. He instantly felt stung.

“That’s not true. He fought. A lot. But he couldn’t win with our mother. He has never been able to win with her. None of us have ever won with her. He didn’t give up his love. He still loves her. But may be he loves Ami more. I don’t know. I can’t speak for him but he’s not just another guy. His fiancé will be the luckiest woman in the world. He’s getting married soon”.

Tires screeched and the car came to a halt. Wind blew and turned into a storm. The sun continued to get hotter until it burned tiny painful holes through her heart. There were pictures around her, of her and Bilal, laughing and kissing each other. Her hands were numb and couldn’t feel the wheel. Someone was saying something and she looked at Azhar but no words reached her. She shut his voice out. There was a noise inside that she had to sort through first or it would be unfair to love and loss. This moment needed its own pedestal in the shrine of broken hearts and tattered souls. So she stopped the car, in the middle of the street, under the scorching sun, blissfully unaware of anything outside her. Achingly aware of her insides tearing up, her demons laughing at her, love standing in a corner mocking her.

What had she thought? She wondered while the world stopped and Azhar sat in silence. Had she thought that Bilal would name his life after her? Or had she thought that he’d wait for the tides to change so he could come and get her? Or did she think that she’d have no opening of the sores of distance if ever she heard his name again? Had she thought that her heart would bear another woman’s name with his with grace and valor?

Grace! She laughed. Another elusive quality. The martyrdom of my heart knows none of that. There’s no grace in it, no dignity, no redemption. There’s just mediocrity and scorn. That’s all.

Azhar shook her shoulder,

“You’re okay? Turn on the car. We are in the middle of the road.”

She turned on the car automatically and went towards the address he had given her earlier.

They turned in his street. Claustrophobia! Something that she had heard of but was experiencing now. The whole street was closing in on her. There was a narrow tunnel ahead of her with no light at the end of it. There were kids laughing and biking in the street and she wanted to stop everyone from laughing. No one should laugh. Everyone should live with grief and regret. Everyone!

“This is it”, Azhar said quietly, aware of the sudden change in her mood. He didn’t feel close enough to her to ask anything. He silently got down.

She looked up at the house where she had hoped to someday live. It was a majestic building with a colonial structure. There was a lush green garden in front of it with many flowers and even a vegetable patch. The house had many windows and she wondered if they were made to create some light in a house full of darkness and neglect. It was a big house with a double garage. There were six cars parked, two in each garage and two on the driveway.

As she was looking at the cars, her eyes inadvertently went to Bilal’s. The car that had so many secrets of their passion and surrender. Her eyes misted over. What was and what could have been were now so jumbled in her head that she wanted to leave to another land.

Azhar came around to her side and knocked on the window. She felt dazed but looked up at him and opened the window.

“Thank you. You don’t look well. Are you okay?”

If she didn’t say something, she couldn’t last a second longer. A tempest of feelings was brewing in her and now her eyes were getting cloudy fast. In a world where she couldn’t share anything with anyone, he seemed the closest thing to a friend.

“I’m okay. Just my heart sank. Has your heart ever sunk?”

He looked at her with the wisdom of the world. She was struck by how young he was, yet looked so much older. He looked so much like Bilal but definitely had a personality that was all his own.

He wanted to ask her what it was. He couldn’t really understand what it was and had learned through time that being intrusive wasn’t the way to go ever. He wanted to know but knew that asking won’t do any good.

He put his elbows on the window of her car and lowered himself to eye level with her.

“Loads of times”.

“What did you do?”

“Nothing”.

“And it got better?”

“Yes. It got better by doing nothing”.

“I’ll try that”.

He gently touched her shoulder,

“Anytime you don’t have answers, take your time. There’s no rush. Take your time. You don’t have to get over it or solve it or learn it or face it or make it or break it right now. You have time. So take your time. Does that sound like the advice you were looking for?”

She smiled gratefully,

“Frankly, I just wanted to talk to a friend”.

“Okay. Then consider this a conversation with a friend.”

“I need a friend”, she said wistfully.

“You got it, kid!” He said lightly, thinking that the only other person he addressed like that was Bilal.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Azhar!”

“Yup”.

She sped past him. He watched her go in a cloud of sand and heat.

He turned around and entered his home. Any other time he would’ve been jubilant to share a special moment with her. Today, he felt his heart heavy and like there was too much pain in the world.

CHAPTER 37:

Because everyone insisted so much, he took Maha for dinner before their wedding. Ami thought that Maha’s mother had subtly mentioned that he didn’t call her or see her as would be expected normally and had even suggested checking with him if he was happy with this match. So Ami had recommended taking her out and proving that he was happy.

He got ready in front of the mirror for the first and last date with his fiancé. Soon she was going to be his wife.

He had asked Azhar to iron his clothes and even choose them for him. He had no energy himself.

And now he stood before the mirror, looking at his appearance critically, wondering how he was going to lose the extra 15 pounds he had gained in the last year.

Who cares, he thought begrudgingly, who cares about a man with no will, getting married to an extremely unattractive woman?

Maha wasn’t unattractive though. Quite the contrary. She was tall, very light-skinned by Pakistani standards and curvy. She was young so of course looked pretty on occasion too. But she wasn’t pretty in a weird way like Tanya was. She was just light-skinned with light eyes and this was enough for his mother to like any girl for her sons.

He picked her up at 6 in the evening. She had been waiting outside. She sat in the car and they left.

It looked like she had taken some particular time in getting dressed. She was wearing an orange outfit that was fitted like a sleeve. There were long and heavy gold and pink earrings with a matching necklace. She was exceptionally tall but was wearing three inch heels. Overall, he was a little disturbed to see her. If this was how she dressed then chances were that he’d like her even less than he did already.

He cleared his throat,

“You look nice”.

“Thanks”, she said, looking at her feet.

“What do you want to eat?”

“Anything’s fine”.

“Okay”.

He parked in front of Marriott, handed his keys to the valet and together they walked in.

Regardless of what he thought about her, they did make a striking couple.

He scanned the restaurant and wanted to sit in a secluded place where he could talk to her. Her shyness or just naturally quiet demeanor had started to grate on him a little. He wished she came out of her shell more and talked just a little more about her day or her life or their future.

The hostess came forward smiling broadly,

“Table for two, sir?”

“Yes, please”.

She took them to the far end of the restaurant and offered them a seat in a corner table where they couldn’t be seen easily by the rest of the guests.

Bilal became acutely aware of her orange outfit. Who wore orange on a first date? This woman had a knack for dressing weirdly always. The first time he had seen her she was wearing teal blue with red accents. He couldn’t look at her much because it gave him a headache.

They had sat in a very romantic part of the restaurant. There were dimly lit lanterns over them and the table had the most expensive dinnerware on it. They had very few people around them. In the far corner of the restaurant a man was singing a lively song on a grand piano. Their table was inconspicuously adorned with flowers of a seasonal variety. They emitted a light fragrance which, if his mood was better, would’ve suggested love and the celebration of love.

She settled herself in a chair across from him and looked at him with big, doleful eyes.

The onus of every conversation was going to be on him, he could tell.

This life was going to be so boring that they’d both enjoy it away from each other, he knew.

Just the fact that they had been silent in the car with no sexual energy was a testament to his ongoing obsession with Tanya.

He quietly reminisced about the attraction for Tanya. He couldn’t keep his hands off of her and she warded off most attempts but was more a tease than a prude. He had come to know a side of woman through her that was rare to find and exotic in its appeal. She was a woman of open seduction and believed in showing love. She wasn’t like some other girls he had dated who liked to act shy and hard to get. Tanya wasn’t traditional, one thing about her. She wasn’t shy, another thing about her.

The waiter came over with a smile that was probably permanently plastered to his face at this point since there was nothing to smile about at the awkward couple at the table. They both looked out of place and uncomfortable. The waiter was used to it. He left the menu cards after some foolish pleasantries and Bilal let out a long breath.

Maha looked up like she had just noticed him. He smiled at her nervously and then decided to get the evening started,

“Have you been here before?”

“Yes”.

“So you must know the menu, then?”

“Kinda”.

“Help me then. Is the shrimp any good?”

She flipped the menu.

“I’d get the filet mignon. Have you had it before?”

Yes, he thought. I loved to eat it with my ex. I’d also love to tell you about her and ruin your evening.

“What do you want to get?” He asked conversationally.

“Erm….. May be the Brussel sprouts and the vegetable lo mein?”

“Sounds like an excellent choice”.

He signaled to the waiter who hurriedly came over, got their order and left.

“Maha!”

“Hmm”.

“You don’t like to talk much, do you?”

“I do”.

“Then why don’t you talk to me?”

She giggled. And kept giggling. He waited patiently but also wanted to get up and leave.

“I talk”, she finally said between post-giggle hiccups. “You just talk about so much that I don’t know”.

In spite of himself, he smiled and said indulgently,

“Never been told that before”.

“You’re so knowledgeable”, she said with stars in her eyes.

He felt sympathetic with her. She had no idea the shoes she had to fill . Tanya was a huge personality and he had gotten a taste of women with a mind of their own.

“If you think I’m so knowledgeable,” he said cajolingly, “then may be if you talked to me more you could be knowledgeable too”.

“May be”. She agreed pleasantly.

You couldn’t tell Tanya she wasn’t as knowledgeable as the next person. She was the most endearing know-it-all. This comment would’ve been dissected by her until he had apologized for a double entendre. She wouldn’t have let it go.

But she was one of a kind anyway.

“Are you happy we are getting married?” She asked unexpectedly.

He looked at the table. What was that cliched quote he read once about good marriages being ninety-nine percent honesty and one percent love? But how is one expected to be honest in any relationship if they’re not honest to themselves? Should he be honest to this stranger? She was a clueless girl who had asked a question so unlike anything else that had come out of her mouth so far that he couldn’t ignore the fact that she was smarter than she let on. She had uncannily opened a wound and this could be that moment. His marriage could become an honest one and so ninety-nine percent good. Even if there wasn’t much love, he’d love honesty between him and Maha. He could either show her his wound and see if she was the messiah. Or he could just dress it back up and hope the stench never reached her, the corpse of his rotting desire never seen by her.

“I’m happy”, he lied. “Why did you ask?”

“Just like that”, she shrugged her shoulders. “I wanted to say something about myself and thought it would be easier if I started with you”. She smiled guiltily.

“You’re not happy?”

“I’m happy”, she said, “Or not but I know I will be. I actually wanted to tell you that I loved someone when I was younger. Much younger. He didn’t want me. We broke up”.

“That’s it?” He asked.

“That’s it”, she said, making eye contact and appearing completely guileless and confident.

So this was it? This was all he had to do to tell her that he loved someone too? But wait a minute! He didn’t just love Tanya. He worshipped the ground she walked. If he told someone how he had loved her, they’d consider him damaged goods and never want to even look in his direction anymore.

But at least your marriage is somewhat honest, someone whispered to him. Thanks to Maha, you can have honesty.

Yes, thanks to Maha I can have honesty and a marriage. Thanks to Azhar I’m still breathing otherwise I would’ve died in a freak accident in my childhood. Thanks to Ami that I was birthed. Thanks to Abu, that I have a roof over my head. Thanks to everyone for carrying my body this far. Without them, I would’ve succumbed to one malady or another a long time ago.

They finished dinner with small talk sprinkled here and there. She had gotten her results the day before and had made it. He didn’t know.

“If you told me I would’ve gotten you something as a present”, he said, mildly meaning it.

“Thank you. You can give me something later”, she teased.

He was pleasantly surprised at her forwardness. That was more his style. He wasn’t a dull person and didn’t like dull people on impulse.

May be she just needs to come out of her shell , he mused.

After spending three hours at the table, Bilal and Maha decided to leave.

They had come as strangers, Bilal thought, and were leaving as acquaintances. May be there was hope after all.

CHAPTER 38:

Nighat was in her element. She was going to finalize Maha’s wedding outfit and insisted that Azhar and Bilal accompany her.

“Why me? Take him. It’s his bride”. Azhar groaned.

“Don’t you want to be there for your brother?” She asked, trying to guilt him into saying yes.

“Come with me, man!” Bilal whispered. “I can’t be with this one for too long”.

“I heard it, Bilal! You’re not very gracious”. Nighat said sternly.

“Ami! Listen!” Bilal started like he was going to make her understand his point, “I go with you every single time”, he looked at the glint in his mother’s eyes and corrected himself, “almost every single time. And what happens? You don’t ask me anything. You just get what you think will look good for Maha. So why do you need us?”

“Because this is a big deal”, she almost screamed with agitation, “this is her wedding outfit. If I had daughters,” she added ruefully, “I wouldn’t have had to beg anyone. They would’ve gladly been my friends and advisors in this”.

Azhar and Bilal exchanged a look. They had talked about how a sister would’ve softened their mother. She would have been a good buffer. Allah hadn’t given them a sister. Someone they desperately needed.

“Okay, we will come with you”, Bilal, always the more compliant, conceded.

“Don’t speak for me”, Azhar objected.

“Please!” Bilal said with that puppy-dog face that he couldn’t refuse.

Nighat smiled. She then proceeded to tell them the real important thing,

” Maha and her mother are also coming along”.

“Then why do you need me too? You guys are enough.” Azhar immediately said.

Bilal was alarmed. His mother never did anything without a motive. It was just a habit of hers to think of herself before the minutest thing. He didn’t have any opinion of her in that regard as he was aware that most people watched out for themselves but he had become wary of this tendency of hers to land everyone else in trouble. She used people like pawns and then disposed of them. He had been disposed of before so he knew.

“Why’re they coming?” He asked tentatively.

She turned to him. Her eyes went cold when she was asked a question that didn’t have an honorable answer. At least she knows she is dishonorable, he reasoned with himself.

“Why can’t they come?” She asked, scanning his face for signs of weakening and giving up.

Bilal was quiet. He didn’t know how to put it but may be time and loss had made him acutely aware of his mother’s flaws. Things that he previously thought were quirks and just made her unique and even, common, had started to show a nasty side to them. When she exhibited privilege and jealousy and arrogance, she seemed somewhat more human than when she exhibited benevolence and indifference. He had come to love her mostly for her status as his mother. He had argued with Azhar many a time about how Ami didn’t know any better because she was born in an era when people didn’t really listen to their kids or respected their kids or were humble towards the fact that they may not be smarter than their kids.

But since she had taken Tanya from him he had started to see her in a slightly different light. Since he had gotten engaged she had definitely started to show much more deference to him. Something that she had always reserved for Azhar. He had never been that important but now she had started to hold him above Azhar in most things. She tried to talk to him often, something that he didn’t want to do much of anymore. The only person he wanted to chat with was Azhar. Besides Azhar, no one knew him at all that he could have a conversation with them that would leave him fulfilled.

And surprisingly, Azhar hadn’t asked him about the nitty gritty of his relationship. He hadn’t even asked Tanya’s name. Something that Bilal was grateful for. With Azhar he was usually his old self. Carefree, laughing, cracking jokes and teasing Azhar.

He knew there was someone in Azhar’s life. He hadn’t forgotten the text but when he hadn’t mentioned it again, Bilal hadn’t badgered him. Sometimes, he thought, falling in love and finding love are two different things.

He shrugged his shoulders,

“They can come if they like”, he said, indifferently, “But she already made you in charge of her outfit. Why does she need to be there?”

“For one she needs to wear it and make sure it fits. Her shoulders are so broad that nothing fitted her gracefully the last time we went and so we had to get this outfit that I almost hated. She’s so obscenely tall too and then likes to wear really loud colors. I couldn’t leave anything in her hands. She would’ve looked like a clown at the wedding”.

Bilal was quiet. It’s all true Ami, he thought begrudgingly, and yet you chose her. Which mother in this world would choose a girl she didn’t like for her son?

“Ami!” Azhar broke the silence, “Where do you get the nerve to speak about Bilal’s fiancé like that?”

The energy in the room changed. Azhar’s anger was legendary and Nighat was always afraid of angering him.

“I didn’t say anything wrong”, she said, softening her tone instantly, “I just want the outfit to compliment her”.

“She’s a pretty girl”, Azhar continued, “Actually very pretty. And even if she wasn’t, how dare anyone of us speak about her like this? How dare we?”

He wasn’t looking at her directly and was texting away on his phone but Nighat was rooted to the spot, afraid to make any wrong move. She knew he was going to lash out any minute so she assumed silence. Usually this was the best way to show her favorite son that she was repentant.

“If I were Bilal,” Azhar said, weighing his words and leaving them hanging in the air like dead weight, “I would never ever let anyone say one nasty word about the woman who I was making a life with. Never ever. Not one word. If I were Bilal. ”

Azhar saved him again, Bilal thanked his big brother internally . He saved Maha too. Ami looked defeated. A part of him, dark and infested with the maggots who had fed on his love, whooped with sinister joy and jubilation. Nighat Afshan deserved it. She deserved every word of it.

They picked up Maha and her mother, Anisa from their modest home in a primarily blue-collar neighborhood. Bilal wanted to get down and knock or ring the bell but Nighat asked him to honk so they could come out. He didn’t think this was respectful but knew she was reeling from her spat with Azhar earlier and so didn’t push it.

Maha and Anisa came out immediately. Maha was dressed in much more subdued colors and looked a little scared. She didn’t make eye contact with any of them and sat silently in the car. Anisa, on the other hand, seemed to be in awe of Nighat and made useless small talk all the way, while Nighat looked out the window.

They got to Zamzama and entered the expensive designer store where Maha’s clothes were ordered. Maha, who was generally very self-conscious, immediately withdrew in her shell even more. She wasn’t a fashion forward person and had actually always had trouble coordinating outfits and staying stylish. For girls in Karachi, fashion sometimes isn’t a choice. It’s a necessity.

Because what’s Karachi without its fashion!Karachi’s fashion is liberal, forward and daring. Even the bridal outfits in Karachi defy tradition and culture to a large extent. Karachi identifies with no culture more than the culture of the hip extrovert. That’s Karachi’s culture, its love language and its art form. Nothing is taboo and nothing is off the cuff when it comes to fashion.

The underground and above the ground couture industry has always thrived in Karachi. Not everything is expensive but most things are emblematic of a city with an unbound enthusiasm for life.

Fashion designers themselves are a unique breed. They range from men and women who typically bootleg high end fashion and sell at cheap prices to hugely successful international designers.

This particular designer was a world-renowned, wedding couture designer and Bilal hadn’t really understood initially why Maha needed an outfit as expensive as this but this trip was an eye-opener.

The store was lit with high powered lights that all gave off the same gold glow and it was like they were standing under the sun, it was so bright. There were at least a half a dozen salesmen walking around and being loud. Large pieces of cloth were spread out on glass tables, around which men and women were gathered, examining the quality of the material and listening to the many design assistants who went to great lengths to sell these outfits.

It was a kaleidoscope of color in the store and could easily give one a migraine.

On one end of the store were all the prettily dressed mannequins, each lavishly dressed and painted to look like a model or a bride themselves. Nighat took Maha to one of the mannequins and showed her the outfit on it, asking if she’d like it too.

Anisa appeared out of place and intimidated. Azhar, always chivalrous when it came to making someone feel at home, got her talking to him about her career as a school teacher.

Bilal spaced out. He was getting married in a few days. The burden of it all was all-consuming. Once upon a time he had planned his wedding with the woman of his dreams. He had a vision of her in a red outfit, showing off her slim body with the deadliest proportions any girl would ever have, her golden cheeks burning under his gaze, her veil slipping off her face, her ornaments moving in sync with time. He walked over to a red outfit. A scarlet outfit that had embellishments and accents of an even richer red. It seemed to drape perfectly around the mannequin and looked like the perfect outfit for Tanya. She looked amazing in red and he had insisted for her to wear red on numerous occasions while they were dating. It all seemed a distant memory now. Like it happened to someone else.

If time stood still, he thought, this would be a good place to spend the rest of my life.

“Bilal! Doesn’t she look gorgeous?”

He heard Ami’s voice behind him and turned around. He saw Maha wearing a maroon outfit with gold accents. She indeed looked gorgeous.

“Very nice”, Azhar said before he could say anything.

Nighat looked at Azhar with an admonishing look,

“Let Bilal answer. He should like it”.

“What if I don’t like it?” Bilal said, half-jokingly. He didn’t like it.

“Come on! You don’t like it? It’s so beautiful. And it wasn’t easy to get, let me tell you. Nothing in this store is made for above a size 6 usually and God bless Maha, she’s a size 10”.

She laughed at her own impolite joke and looked around for approval.

But none came forth whatsoever. Bilal tried to laugh a weak laugh in support of his conceited mother but Azhar took over.

It was enough that she had made fun of Maha and ridiculed her frame when they were home.

It was enough that she routinely made fun of people on the basis of physicality, social status and money.

It was enough that she hadn’t spoken two words to Anisa who deserved much more respect than Nighat had given her that evening.

But this was going too far. Humiliating Maha to her face was going too far.

It was easy for him to reach his breaking point with his mother under regular circumstances, but now she was making a decent family feel less than and it was sinisterly similar to how she had been with him and his brothers all their lives. Mocking, condescending, demeaning.

“You don’t like Maha in this outfit?” He asked her, serious in his eyes and accusatory in his tone.

“I didn’t say that”, Nighat said, fearing an embarrassment coming on at the hands of her conscientious son but her pride and arrogance not allowing her to forfeit this one.

“You didn’t say that but you implied it. If you don’t like it on her then we can change it. Unless Maha likes it. Then we can’t change it because it’s Maha’s outfit”.

She avoided his angry eyes, panicking. She knew him well enough to know that he could blow his lid easily when it came to her.

“I’m sorry if I sounded like that”, she turned to Maha, “I apologize”.

“So you think she looks gorgeous in it, right?” Azhar persisted.

“Yes! Yes, of course. What gave anyone the impression that I didn’t like Maha in this outfit?”

“Something in the way you talked about Maha being a size 10. I can tell you that all of us got that impression”, he said smoothly.

“Actually”, Maha said, haltingly, “I didn’t think you liked it on me when you said that I’m too big for this color”.

Nighat stared at her. She hadn’t actually thought this dumb girl would even get a side stabbing comment.

“I’m sorry”, she said, her arrogant manner coming back, “If you felt that way”.

“Next time”, said her oldest son, as arrogant as her, “when you apologize don’t use a qualifier like ‘if I offended you’. It makes it a non apology. You are not Rush Limbaugh”.

She glared at him as he effortlessly insulted her before the people she considered so beneath her. He knew she was angry. But he didn’t care. He whistled sweetly and winked at Bilal when no one was looking.

CHAPTER 39:

He hadn’t seen Tanya for two days so decided to check on her. She was normally so punctual that any irregularity made him disbelieve everything .

She picked up on the first ring,

“Hello”, she said with a smile in her voice. She had started to like him. He was the only piece of Bilal that she had at the moment and even though she knew that it was cowardly that she’d just not face the fact that Bilal had moved on and stop living through Azhar vicariously, she also felt a little older brother vibe with him. And a friend. He was a good friend who checked on her even though looked scared when she told him off.

“Hello, Doctor! Are you going to come back and see your patients or just be sad?”

She was sad. Since the day she had heard of Bilal’s wedding, she had been sad. Her mother had asked her many times why she wasn’t eating or talking much and then had given up. She had had strange spells of odd behavior and Asma was actively looking for a guy for her to take her mind off of Bilal. Her mom’s dedicated efforts at looking for a man for her made her sadder. Why is marriage the answer to all conundrums?

“I’m not sad”, she lied.

“Okay. Then why did you have tears in your eyes when you dropped me home the other day? Why haven’t you been coming to work?”

She sighed. He imitated her. She laughed.

“Guess I’ve been caught”, she said softly .

“No. I didn’t catch you doing something wrong or bad. You cried. That’s normal. Because you were sad. Sadness is to life as fish is to water. Did you do similes in school?”

She laughed again. He was starting to become used to her laugh.

“I did. Don’t remember this one.”

“Okay. Have you eaten?”

“Eaten? Like dinner?” She said a little flustered, sensing the possibility that he might ask her out.

“Yes. Like dinner. Or lunch or breakfast. I don’t know why doctors don’t eat”.

“I ate, if it means so much to you. And doctors eat. Just not as much as IT guys”.

“I’m glad you remember my designated title”. He said dryly.

“Don’t be defensive. You have yourself introduced yourself as the IT guy on more than one occasion”.

“Yes IT guy is much cooler compared to its close relative ‘software loser engineer”.

She snorted and laughed for minutes. Tears ran down her eyes and Asma came into her room to inquire what happened.

“Nothing, Mama! Just a friend”. He heard her say.

“So I’m a friend?” He asked enthusiastically.

“Yes”.

“So can a friend know why you were sad?”

“I lost someone”.

“To life or to death?”

“To life”.

“Was he an ex-boyfriend?”

A boyfriend? She thought. Bilal was my boyfriend? Well guess that’s what most people would call him. My ex and my boyfriend. Why does it sound condescending and humiliating?

“He was a friend who was a boy”.

“You make everything so complicated”.

My life’s complicated, Bilal’s brother, it’s very complicated because of two people you call family.

She recovered and asked indifferently,

“How’s your brother’s wedding coming along?”

“Great”.

“Just great?”

“Not great for anyone but Ami. She likes having her way and with Bilal she has always had her way so yesterday we went to pick his fiancé’s wedding outfit. Ami chose the fiancé. Ami chose the outfit. Ami insulted the fiancé. Then Ami and I exchanged words. A typical day in the life of the Hussain family”.

“Is there a lot of fighting at home?”

“That’s the problem. We don’t fight”.

“And that’s a problem?”

“Yes. That’s THE problem”.

“Okay. I’m intrigued. Explain that to me”.

“See! When we fight, we exchange emotion and words. We exchange heat and anger, right?”

“Right!”

“So even though there is a lot of exchange of highly volatile energy, we communicate through it. That’s what a fight achieves”.

“So fighting is a good thing?”

“It’s a wonderful thing. It opens channels of communication. It’s a conduit to resolution. Someone told us that arguing, disagreeing and confronting are wrong and we thought that they are universally wrong in all situations. I don’t agree with that. When it’s about Bilal, Hashir or Aman, I fight and argue and let the other person know what I think and feel”.

“Anyone else that you feel you need to fight for? Is there someone else you’d argue for?”

He hesitated for a minute. Then said casually,

“That’s for another time”.

“Ah! So there is someone. I did think and wonder how an eligible bachelor like you is still not taken”.

“Oh I’m taken. She doesn’t know it yet but I’m taken”, he said, self-deprecating humor back on full charm.

“So when will you tell her?”

“One of these days”, he said, wondering what it would be like to tell her one of these days, “one of these days”.

“Tell me how it goes”.

“You’ll be the first to know”.

“Thanks. I’m usually the last in everything so this feels very important”.

“You shortchange yourself a lot, I’ve noticed”, he counseled like an elder, “You need to know your worth. You’re the only one who is you so there’s just one of you”.

“Okay, Dr. Seuss”, she said with a little humor at his expense, “I have to go and eat.”

“Thanks for calling me a Dr.”, he said, mock-serious.

“Dr. Seuss wasn’t really a doctor”, she couldn’t ever not state a fact.

“Tanya! You’re a great girl but your sense of humor sucks”.

“No way! It’s awesome. I read all the comic strips”.

“That was a good one”, he laughed.

“Thanks for the seal of approval. Will I see you tomorrow at the hospital?”

“Yes. As IT guy in charge I have to be there”.

“I notice you keep adding words to your title. Are you allowed to do that?”

“Totally. I don’t work under the dictatorial regime of Dr. Safdar. I’m a free agent”.

She realized they were going to hang up a few minutes ago.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Azhar”.

Why was she hanging up?

“I’ll see you tomorrow, kid!”

She didn’t go to eat as she had said. Instead she lay in bed, thinking about Azhar and Bilal. Bilal and Azhar.

They had similarities but they were also different.

Bilal was cheeky and corny.

Azhar was that too.

Bilal was lovable and very likable.

Azhar was that too.

Bilal was good-natured and honest.

Azhar was that too.

But…. she hated to admit it to herself because any comparison that didn’t draw out in Bilal’s favor felt like cheating…… Azhar was the man who’d make a woman very happy. He was a strong person and his strength didn’t take from his sensitivity. He was strong and sensitive. Bilal was sensitive but not strong. Azhar was brave and forthright. Bilal was forthright and brave…… until she counted on his bravery. Then he couldn’t be brave. He couldn’t be that at all.

Azhar was restless. He had had a meaningful conversation with her and now couldn’t keep this secret anymore.

He contemplated telling Bilal but felt insensitive telling his brother that he had found the one when he was going through the process of an arranged marriage to a woman he didn’t really like. No! This wasn’t the right time. May be once he was married and hopefully happy he would share it. Tanya was still completing her house job and he didn’t think she’d be looking at another guy given what sounded like a bad breakup recently.

He also was perplexed about telling her at all unless he had spoke to his mother. He knew he’d have to tell Nighat Afshan . He knew she’d object. He knew he’d win but he had to tell her. That would be the honorable thing to do. He couldn’t hide it from her because he wasn’t afraid of her. But he also wanted to fight for Tanya and then propose to her. He didn’t want her heart broken a second time. He was sure he won’t break her heart but…… life is strange. Ami took everything from Bilal. She could take everything from him also.

CHAPTER 40:

In the days to come, Bilal had trouble remembering his own wedding, the days leading up to it, the days immediately after it, the many dinners they went to, the corny comedy at the expense of the newly weds.

He was consumed with grief. A sadness that had never occurred in these proportions engulfed him. He felt like he was drowning and there was nothing to hold on to. He had terrible insomnia again and he had started to gain weight with remarkable ease. He stopped going to gym. He would take his car in the morning, under the pretense of going to work and would spend the whole day at the beach, fondly remembering the days with Tanya.

He cried sometimes. Bitterly. After Salah. He complained to Allah and asked for deliverance. He begged for forgiveness, certain that he was being punished. He asked to be spared the test. He wished to go back in time. He prayed for death.

None of his prayers came true. He was alive the day of his wedding. He walked to the venue, sat with his bride, watched people eat and be merry.

Azhar was unusually quiet. Bilal had never shut him out before but now he had. He had stopped coming to him either.

Pakistani weddings don’t have a best man. Culturally Pakistanis have flamboyant weddings and elaborate affairs pertaining to weddings. Weddings are lavish, colorful affairs and both bride and groom are traditionally given a wide berth of love and respect. But even though traditionally there isn’t much concept of a best man, groomsmen, a maid of honor or bridesmaids, there are special people in the bride and groom’s party. Azhar was that special person for Bilal.

He got the outfit for Bilal. He got his shoes. He took him for a quick facial cleansing and a few days before his wedding he asked Bilal to start hitting the gym again. Bilal did as he was told. Azhar took care of everything for him as he always had.

Sometimes Bilal was angry at Azhar too. If it hadn’t been for Azhar, he would have poisoned himself and called it a life well spent. Azhar needed him, he knew.

He was a little alarmed initially when numbness had set in. He didn’t want to be lifeless. Sure her memory killed him every single time it occurred but that was better than not thinking of her at all. Then Allah gave him the feeling back and he wished fervently for numbness again. So now he was not feeling anything.

What do grooms think of, he wondered. Do they think of sex, happiness, love, a life together, children, having their own family? Or do they think of a love lost, a tale untold, a song unfinished? Someone played happy music at all times at home and he was grateful for that. He fantasized about long, slow dances with her. Of rain and the fireflies after the rain, Tanya and Bilal chasing them. Of togetherness and the ecstasy at finding a lover for life.

He ate like a robot and slept on time. Ami had reminded him of the program on his wedding day so many times that he felt iron hands tightening their hold around his neck. He choked but Ami kept choking him. Like she always had.

She dragged him to get Maha’s wedding gift. She insisted it was a bracelet. He complied. If it was Tanya he would’ve bought a ring. With their names engraved with something like “together forever” or another Hallmark cheesy moment. It would’ve been an inside joke since they both hated the stereotypical representation of love and lust in popular media and were always taking Indian movies apart with their sardonic critique. He sighed at the bracelet. It looked like another thing his mother had chosen. No personality, no warmth, heavy and weightless at the same time.

Just like all the other days since she had left, his wedding day was also a dazed mix of emotions, rushed instructions and her memory.

He woke up in the morning after sleeping for only a half hour at night. He had been awake with hollowness inside and noise outside. He lay in bed for hours, asking Allah to forgive his sins. Then fighting with Him. Then reconciling with Him. Then bargaining with Him. Then becoming angry again. By the time noon rolled around, he was exhausted.

Azhar was waking him up. He opened his eyes and saw his older brother’s worried look at his bloodshot eyes. He tried to alleviate his worry by saying something witty but just stared at his gray eyes, reflecting the grief that his heart held.

He saw a few tears in Azhar’s eyes too. Why was he crying? He had everything. Looks, Ami’s love and a career. Was he crying because he had raised him with so much love and he had turned out to be an utter disappointment?

“Billu!” Azhar said softly.

When I die, Bilal looked at his brother’s handsome face, don’t let anyone come close to me, Azhar! Except you. Only you can come close to me, bathe me, pray for me, and bury me. No one else, not even Tanya, can come close to me when I die. Only you ever cared about me. Only you ever loved me. You are my mother and my father. So only you will have my funeral rights. Everyone else can just stay away and disconnected like they’ve always been.

Azhar helped him sit up. He suggested breakfast but Bilal declined. Finally Azhar said,

“Billu! We have to get ready. You have to get your haircut. You’ve put it off for too long. Now it’s your wedding, see, and you’re not quite ready. Then we have to get you all ready. We have to be at the wedding by 8. There isn’t a lot of time. It’s 2 in the afternoon”.

“Azhar!” He said, putting his head in his lap like he had so many times when Ami wasn’t fair to him when they were children, “Why am I not happy?”

Azhar’s heart broke. To think that his brother would ever not be happy with his marriage was killing him. He had always thought that all four of them would have loving marriages, different from their parents’, have many kids and their kids would be brothers and sisters to each other instead of cousins. But this wasn’t even starting right .

He stroked Bilal’s hair. He felt a deep disgust for the woman who made their mother. She didn’t deserve them. Another woman would kill to have sons as obedient, as down-to-earth and as dedicated in their servitude to her. She didn’t deserve them. She was a snake and they had fed her the milk of their youth, love and kindness but it had all been wasted on her.

Finally Bilal got up and Azhar dropped him off at the salon. He called Tanya on the way back.

“Hey”, her sad voice echoed in the car.

“Hi! How are you?”

“I’m okay. How have you been?”

“Okay. Just dropped off Bilal for his final shenanigans. It’s his wedding tonight”.

Somewhere in the distance, someone’s hope crashed for any reconciliation, any redemption. In a galaxy faraway, two stars broke into a million pieces and showered their remnants on more fortunate people. Wind howled in her ears while evil witches who had plotted the death of her love cackled with humorless laughter. She couldn’t hear anything over the cacophony of it all and hung up.

She slid down the wall behind her, her heart bleeding through her chest, her eyes burning, her spirit momentarily leaving her body to make her get what death truly feels like.

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