All’s Fair…. part 5.

CHAPTER 41:

This was supposed to be the night of dreams seeing their fulfillment.

This was going to be the night when he’d unlock the secrets to love like he had promised someone once.

This night was the biggest witness of love and passion.

He had imagined this night to cause a spiritual change. Something that would make him glued to the person he’d share it with.

And why would he not hold this night in the highest of esteems? Every love story had documented this night to be full of the wonderment of love. Full of the seduction of physical desire. Full of a longing that originated from the streams of lust and finally poured into the sea where they both would become one.

Instead,

This night became a litany of Tanya’s name.

It became a repulsion against Maha.

It became a making of his cowardice and recreancy. It became a reminder of how he had deceived love and how love had defeated him in return.

Maha looked beautiful, undoubtedly undeniably beautiful. But Tanya’s tears blurred everything.

Against her natural quietness, Maha tried to initiate small talk. But Tanya’s wails drowned out her voice.

There was a bracelet in his pocket that felt heavier than it was. And why wouldn’t it? His pocket was meant to carry a ring. A delicate ring. The finest piece of jewelry ever created at the hands of a perfectionist of a goldsmith. Someone who would’ve understood the weaving of love and how it interlaced with rainbow-colored dreams.

He took out the bracelet on autopilot and handed the box to her. She stared at it, somewhat perplexed. It was hard for her to know why he was so quiet or distant. She knew he didn’t like her and probably didn’t feel very attracted to her because of her confession about a prior relationship but he hadn’t looked offended when she had mentioned it months ago. Why was he so weary looking now?

She took the box and opened it. She handed him the bracelet and said shyly,

“Custom dictates that you put it on me”.

Custom? He wanted to take her customary red outfit off and tell her there was no custom. She was free to find happiness somewhere else. Anywhere else. Defy all customs and do something that would make him feel less guilty of breaking one woman’s heart and entering into another deceitful relationship.

What was it that his mother said? He strained to remember. Oh yeah! When you’ve been deceitful in one relationship, you’re likely to be deceitful in other relationships too.

Ami would know, he thought darkly, she would know. Deceit is her middle name .

He took her hand finally and slipped the bracelet on. He held on to her hand. He expected a warmth to radiate from it and warm him too. Like Tanya’s hand used to do. No warmth came forth. He let it go. It fell like a dead fish.

He circled the bed a few times. What did people do in disingenuous marriages? Pretend that they were interested and proceeded to make love? Or openly said their lover’s name and expected their wives to take it? Or fantasized about their ex while their wives basked in the attention that they gave them in their arms?

He finally sat on the bed and looked around.

This room was decorated by a company that did room decor for wedding nights professionally.

The entire room had the faint smell of jasmine and red roses. And jasmine and red roses adorned the room also. Ami had just recently changed the furniture of this room and had actually converted it into a mini version of her own room.

She had gotten another Victorian furniture. It had a dark brown color that looked royal and expensive. There was a high headboard, about six foot high and seemed to loom over the people sleeping in it like the angel of death probably looms over its victims. Intricate patterns that entwined and twisted into each other and around each other were the expression of sinister art that this furniture boasted. There were red bedclothes on the bed, the traditional Pakistani decor of a newly wed couple’s bed. There were more cushions and pillows on the bed than there was room for and even though they were likely placed there to give an effect of class and money, they looked cheap and overbearing.

The dressing table was as big as the bed and took up most of the room that was spared by the bed. There was already a junk load of make up and perfumes on the dressing table making it unusable. There was no room for his stuff and he felt discarded again. Wow! Talk about his room and his ownership of it.

But the most conspicuous piece of ornamentation was the huge framework of flowers that surrounded the bed that Maha sat on. Their marital bed had the traditional flower wall that’s usually put around the three corners of a Pakistani wedding bed, sparing the headboard. Strings and garlands of jasmine and red roses hung by the metal frame, giving the illusion of an island in the room. An island for lovers except there were no lovers in this room.

The walls had been stripped of his favorite posters that included sportsmen and bikini models. Overnight this room had taken on an eerie quality. He briefly mourned the room that he had made many memories in with his favorite brother and then was jolted to another reality.

Is this room an indication of the transformation that was expected in his life too? Would people expect him to forget Tanya and love Maha? Would people expect him to lean on Azhar less than before? Would people expect him to grow up and get out of the shadow of his brother?

“May be we should change into something more comfortable?” Maha suggested politely.

He looked at her gratefully. She seemed to have realized that she was in charge and he was grateful for that. Another day, he spoke to his wife wordlessly, I’ll be in charge. Not tonight. Tonight I’m mourning a death. So tonight let me mourn it. Tomorrow may be I’ll be the husband you came here to find.

They both changed into their night clothes. Whether it was for the fact that he always slept better when someone was sleeping with him or because he hadn’t slept at all the night before, he was out as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Maha watched her handsome husband for many minutes. Then she yawned, said a little prayer and was soon fast asleep herself too.

CHAPTER 42:

Life resumed. He was a married man now and therefore had to share his room, his closet and his bathroom with another person. And his life. He had to share that too.

Maha turned out to be a nonintrusive wife after all. She rarely spoke, was usually dressed in horrendously loud clothes and jewelry and was therefore busy with her make up and upkeep for most of the day .

She wasn’t as stupid as she presented herself however . She was quick to judge that Nighat Afshan was a more important person to please than her own husband and therefore made friends with her quickly. Nighat’s friendship wasn’t inexpensive though. It came at the expense of insults and backhanded commentary on Maha’s appearance, clothing choices and family.

Their marriage was consummated. On an uneventful night. She was ready and he didn’t want to disappoint another woman. Sex was robotic and predictable with Maha. She didn’t believe in pleasing or taking any pleasure from it. He agreed with her. The feeling of something huge missing from their union was mutual. They both rolled over afterwards and slept.

In moments of solitude Tanya came to him. Her big black eyes accusing him of cheating. He wondered if she was dating someone or already married. He thought about her in bed with someone else and whether she thought of him too.

Bilal had become more invested in his father’s business than he had been previously. He liked keeping busy. He came home, had dinner, went to bed and the nights that Maha decided, they had sex.

Azhar had gone back to work also. He was carrying a secret but didn’t know if now was the time to let it out.

Nighat Afshan watched everything go back to how it suited her. She watched Bilal being miserable but reasoned that he was a depressed soul and there was nothing that could be done for people who chose misery. She brought Maha closer to herself. She sensed that this was the soldier that she had waited all her life for. Dumb, fearful of falling out of favor with her mother-in-law and impressionable to a fault. This, she thought, is how women should be. If they can’t be powerful and fierce, then they should be dumb and meek.

So this was how the Hussains settled into their new life. The hierarchy didn’t get challenged by Maha’s arrival. In fact Maha worked to strengthen it. She laboriously worked to win Nighat’s favor. She bore with fortitude thinly veiled insults. She took criticism on her cooking and housekeeping with good humor. She never countered Nighat . She knew that she was brought here by her and could also be kicked out by her.

Maha bided her time. She knew she won’t be stuck here forever. She was going to get out of here. She also knew that Bilal wasn’t all that into her and so, like many Pakistani women who have been taught false lessons of subservience as the golden ticket to some form of economic or domestic salvation, she pretended to agree with everything Nighat Afshan said.

CHAPTER 43:

“What are you cooking?” Nighat Afshan asked, entering the kitchen.

Azhar was standing in the kitchen hurriedly finishing a piece of cake before going out with his friends.

Maha was quiet as she normally was. Azhar noticed that she was normally either quiet or sniveling around Nighat. She intimidates this poor girl too, he thought sympathetically.

He didn’t have any particular relationship with Maha. It had been six months since Bilal’s wedding and he hadn’t had a chance to know her or even talk to her. Usually she was so shy and looked so overwhelmed by his presence that he had started to not be present when she was around.

He could see that she and Bilal weren’t close. It hurt him and made him dislike his mother more.

Maha had been charged with domestic chores two weeks after her wedding. For a woman who lived and breathed tradition, Nighat didn’t have much regard for the age old tradition of Pakistani brides not working a lot around the house for weeks and sometimes months after their wedding. She had nicely given Maha a list of chores to do everyday on a piece of paper and said,

“Get your bearings. I was pregnant with my fourth when I was your age. Women get married when they are almost old maids now and then spend another six months being entitled brides. I don’t agree with all that.”.

She had made it a habit to check in with Maha multiple times during the day to see how the chores were coming along. She suffocated everyone around her. Azhar was amazed to see that for a timid girl, Maha had been holding up quite well.

So as per her usual morning routine she had come in demanding to know what Maha was going to cook that day.

Maha, who never had the confidence to match her mother-in-law’s stately presence, stammered,

“I was thinking may be potatoes”.

Nighat tut tutted. Maha immediately improvised,

“Or may be chicken”.

“Excellent. Can you get the chicken from the freezer?”

Maha scrambled. She wasn’t a very graceful person and usually was tripping over her own step.

And the kitchen and its layout didn’t help. Azhar sometimes wondered why every corner of this house told a tale of distasteful choices. Almost every corner of their home had questionable furniture and equipment. The kitchen was just another poorly thought out space where the family spent so much time.

The kitchen was large and so space wasn’t a problem. It was probably one of the largest spaces of their astoundingly spread out house. But it looked much smaller due to the gigantic stove with the eight burners that stood erect against one of the walls, paint peeling from its side, rusting iron plates adorning the oven inside and a vent pipe above it that didn’t work anymore, thereby helping all the oil to mix with the air and then congeal on the wall that rose behind the stove.

On one side of the kitchen was their extra large deep freezer. For a family of six, and now seven, this freezer was not only too big, it was atrocious. For a kitchen that had been run by two cooks before Maha arrived, the freezer could’ve looked cleaner. But no! There were stains of a red variety splattered all over the white front of the freezer and the top had been used to put heavy pots and pans so often that it showed visible signs of damage. Inside the freezer they had a top layer of things that they normally used and then a bottom layer of over-frozen, never taken out and now too-frozen-to-ever-be-able-to-thaw out products.

But as appalling as the stove and the freezer were, nothing matched the ugliness of the huge glass showcase that was supposedly a gift from his mother’s parents to her. This showcase was old and it showed. There were unmistakable signs of the wood taking damage from the moisture and heat in the kitchen and had now split in places to make room for the ever expanding splinters of this relic. It had been maroon in color when he was a kid but then had been painted white, apparently his mother’s favorite color in furniture, and the cracks showed more, if anything. This showcase had an assortment of the finest china and expensive cutlery, some of which was rumored to have been imported from Japan and Denmark. It all looked like a witch’s paraphernalia to him.

Oh Maha! He thought sympathetically. You must have thought you were coming to this woman’s house who is so put together and magnificent when she wants to be. Did you know that her kitchen and her whole home is a sad, bitter place like her?

Maha rummaged in the deep freezer for a few minutes, closed it and said,

“We are out of chicken”.

Nighat smiled a patronizing smile.

She busied herself with the kettle on the stove. Then,

“How long have you been here?”

“Six months”.

“Yet you appear to have just arrived”.

Azhar listened. This was like watching a puppy getting kicked.

“I forgot. I knew we were out but forgot. I can make potatoes”. Maha apologized.

“Potatoes? What were you going to make out of potatoes? I’ve never used potatoes as a main dish.”

Maha brightened up.

“You can make a lot of things with potatoes. Curry, wedges, fries, baked potatoes, roast them. My mom used to make them so often that we know a million things to make out of them”.

“I’m sure your mom knew of many economical dishes. It’s not easy to feed four children when money is tight”, she said smoothly.

Azhar watched the color drain from Maha’s face.

“I love potatoes”, he smiled at Maha encouragingly.

Nighat looked at him critically. Why did he always have to side with the underdog?

“Even if you like them, they can’t be a solitary dish. What else were you going to make with them?” She asked coolly, fussing over the kettle.

Maha was dumbfounded. She had never been quick on her feet and was certainly no match for her mother-in-law.

“Why’re you asking Maha these questions, Ami?”

That familiar sarcastic, hateful tone. The usual spite dripping from his tongue. The one son that she tried to turn so much but refused to, had spoken.

Nighat immediately changed tack.

“Maha sets the menu everyday. I trust her with it”.

“Then why can’t she set the menu today?”

“I’m just asking..”

“No”, he interrupted her, advancing towards her menacingly, “You’re not just asking. You’re not just wondering. You’re not merely inquiring. You’re not making small talk. You’re doing none of that”.

He was standing in front of her, shoulders squared, nose inches away from her, his gray eyes boring into her hazel ones.

“Then what do you think I’m doing, Azhar?” She decided to not let him get the better of her before her new daughter-in-law.

“You know what I think you’re doing. You’ve done it before. I’ve seen you do it before. I know you, Ami, like I know myself. Haven’t you always said that I’m just like you?”

She saw wild rage in his eyes. She averted her gaze,

“I’m sorry, Maha”, she said finally, “Cook whatever you want to”, and stomped out.

Azhar looked at Maha. She was standing still, looking at the floor, waiting for him to disappear also.

He felt sorry for Bilal. This was the woman that his mother chose for his brother. Spineless! No wonder she had no camaraderie, no real relationship with his extremely outgoing brother.

He shook his head and left the kitchen. Sometimes he was scared of all the sacrifices that his mother would demand of her sons.

CHAPTER 44:

Tanya smiled at him as she walked to the surgery department and he bumped into her.

He made sure to run into her everyday. His work didn’t start until 10 but he came to the parking lot everyday at 7 to catch her. She didn’t know this.

“How are you?” She asked warmly.

“Great”.

They walked in silence.

“Tanya!”

“Hmm”.

“It’s my birthday tomorrow. Just a few of us will be there. Will you come?”

Her heart started to race. She couldn’t ignore the subtle signs of interest that he showed. He waited for her in the afternoon for lunch and they ate together almost everyday. She had started to like him as a friend and a part of her felt an affinity to him because he was Bilal’s brother but she hadn’t ever considered anything remotely like what she had sensed from him. Usually she blew these warnings off by explaining them to herself but this was too obvious.

The parking lot was customarily quiet and lonely in the morning. They normally took a longer route so he could walk her to the surgery department and then he walked about two miles to Medicine 4 where he was still working.

He waited with baited breath. They kept walking and as usual, right when they approached the surgical unit, the sun had come out and there was a pretty pink glow of the winter sun on everything.

She paused in front of the department, contemplating a polite way to phrase her response,

“Azhar! Sorry. I can’t come to your birthday party. I’m a very shy person and family get-togethers aren’t my thing”.

He looked dejected. She was surprised to see his face fall at this. This isn’t a big deal, she thought.

It was a chance of a lifetime for him to introduce her to his family as a friend and gauge their response.

She couldn’t see him like that. She immediately regretted her words but knew there wasn’t another way.

“Are you upset with me for saying no?”

He smiled,

“Why do you care?”

“I care”, she said with eager eyes, “Don’t think I don’t care. I care a lot. But…I can’t be there. I’ll make a fool of myself. I’m sure you can tell that I’m not the life of the party”.

“You struggle a lot with your own perception of your amazingness. Is it hard for you to accept that you’re awesome?”

“Do you think I’m awesome? I guess I’ve been told that before. But then they left me hanging and now I doubt everything”.

He saw the familiar sadness coming on. He didn’t mean to hurt her.

“Okay. Don’t come. Are you happy now? I’ll bring a piece of cake for you and you’ll have to eat that without any sad faces”.

She laughed. He was truly Bilal’s blood. Easy going, never pushy, loving and honest to the core. His face never lied.

“I’m happy now. But you’re eating lunch with me today. Don’t forget that”, she teased him.

“I can’t forget feeding you because you’re so skinny”.

She made a face at him and went into Surgical 6. He watched her hair swishing behind her.

She felt weird after their conversation. Was it true that she had low self-esteem? Of course that’s true, a voice said. You have been rejected once and that stays fresh.

She knew she shouldn’t stay friends with Azhar. He was Bilal’s brother and sometimes showed unmistakable signs of a different type of interest in her. She tossed those thoughts usually but he had invited her to his birthday. What could that possibly mean?

He sat in his office, disappointed that she won’t come but happy that they were getting closer.

He had thought that his birthday would be the perfect opportunity to introduce her to his family in a low-key way. May be Ami would like her and there wouldn’t be any fighting. May be Tanya would like them so much that she’d need no convincing. But now he didn’t have that opportunity. It was bittersweet. He wanted to cross all the steps and get to her. But after seeing what happened to Bilal, he had become a little afraid of his fate also. His fate could also largely rest with Ami, he knew that.

He went home and Bilal reminded him several times that it was his birthday the next day.

They had always celebrated each other’s birthdays even when no one else did. As they grew up they made many friends who took away the loneliness further and started to celebrate with them. With Hashir and Aman growing up they had started to have a little party at home that Ami and Abu would also become a part of.

Bilal always set up his party and Azhar would set up his brother’s. Both oldest coordinated and celebrated the youngest two’s amidst big cheers every year. They had both missed out on so much childhood that they didn’t want their younger brothers to miss out on any experiences .

Azhar always enjoyed attention from his brothers. He had tried to bring Maha in the fold too but she appeared to have sold her soul to the devil and spent an extraordinary amount of time with Nighat Afshan.

His birthday arrived the next day. Bilal, as was his habit, woke him up in the morning. They had a ritual of going to a favorite haunt of theirs to eat halwa poori. Bilal blew a lot of money on Azhar’s birthday every year and always bought an expensive gift. Azhar could never plan a party like Bilal did. Bilal had already called their friends and they were all going to have breakfast together.

As they were leaving, Maha came thundering down the stairs, and almost yelled,

“Where are you off to? Don’t you think I deserve to know where you are going at 7 in the morning?”

She didn’t look like the meek Maha that Azhar usually saw. But Bilal didn’t look very perturbed. He looked like he had seen this monster before. He calmly replied,

“It’s Azhar’s birthday and we always have breakfast with friends on our birthdays. I told you last night”.

She was wrong footed for a second but came with more force,

“For a married man to run off with his brother and friends for a ritual that really is nonsensical, is not mature”.

Azhar was silent. He felt his primitive anger rising. His insides shaking with inexplicable wrath. The fury at his brother spoken to like that was charging to break through. But he knew it wasn’t his place.

“Our friends are waiting”, Bilal said more patiently than he felt, “Can we talk about this when we come back?”

But she couldn’t give it up. This was the perfect time to embarrass Azhar, the man who hogged all her husband’s attention and love. She didn’t have any place in Bilal’s life because of this god forsaken brother of his. She wanted Azhar to hear how he had been interfering in their married life. And this opportunity had presented itself.

“No we can’t talk about this when you come back”, she said rapidly descending the stairs. “What are you going to say when you come back? Or is your brother going to give you pointers on how to talk to your wife? If you’re a man, answer this! What is this sick dependence that you have on your brother? I’ve never seen this before and frankly, it’s a little perverse”.

Filthy venomous language hadn’t ever been a favorite way of communication for both of them. They had grown up watching their mother use words that stung and meant more than one meaning. They purposefully avoided double entendres, puns and euphemisms. They had been permanently turned off by the witticisms of any language.

Bilal listened with continued calm,

“Maha! I have asked you to hold that thought until I come back. Is that so hard for you to do?”

She withdrew. For the time being. She was going to get him. When he came back. She always did.

They left and sat in the car. Surprisingly their closeness didn’t automatically make Azhar confident about broaching Maha’s rudeness with Bilal. Bilal, however, broke the silence himself,

“Don’t be fooled by the deer in headlights look that she has all the time”, he laughed sarcastically, “she’s a mean one and she’s getting better at it by spending time with that other one”.

Bilal never spoke like that. Azhar wasn’t sure of his relationship with Maha even though could hazard an accurate guess but he never spoke like that about Ami. To lighten the mood he said,

“I wanted to invite that girl I told you about to my birthday tonight but she declined”.

“Yeah?” Bilal said, immediately interested in his brother and forgetting everything else, “Why? She probably found out that we are a sad damaged family”.

Are we a sad damaged family, Azhar thought, would it be fair to bring someone as innocent and honest as Tanya into the mix?

They had breakfast with their friends and Azhar saw his brother laughing and having a good time after many days.

They came back home, Bilal dropped him off and went to work. Azhar had taken the day off but now felt too restless to do anything. He went to the garden to check on some plants he had sown the week prior.

Nighat was there.

Normally he acted disinterested around her but the events from that morning weighed heavily on his mind. He wanted to talk to someone and figured his mother was as good a person as any.

She was examining a rose bush, lovingly caressing each branch, talking to them in soothing tones. He stopped behind her and listened to his mother’s rarely heard voice. The voice of the plant whisperer. The voice that she only reserved for plants.

Their garden was full of flowers. They had full glory hydrangeas and hibiscus on one side and tulips right across from them. They had a small shrubbery running right along the driveway and rose bushes grew there. They had six different colors of roses and both Azhar and Nighat were extremely proud of their labor of love. Most recently they had had work done on their grass and had the finest, most lush garden in the whole neighborhood. They grew many seasonal vegetables at home.

They also had some larger trees. They had a mango tree that they had worked hard to maintain over the years. Mango trees can become exceptionally large and scary-looking and Azhar had told their landscape company to pay special attention to this tree. They also had date palm trees, his favorite. There were some varieties of birch and lark. For a garden that size, they had used it well.

“Ami!” He said softly.

“Son!” She said, still caressing the plant and turning to look at him and smile.

She’s so beautiful. He thought. Why isn’t she more human? I wish we were all plants. Then we’d get some love too.

“Can I speak with you?”

“Sure! Can we speak later? I’m busy with these little ruffians”. She always spoke about the plants like they were little kids.

“It’s about Maha. I wanna talk before she wakes up”.

She straightened up immediately. Many questions and possible scenarios came to her mind. Had she been rude to Azhar? Or was he here to advocate for her?

“Talk to me”, she said brusquely.

He relayed the morning events. He wasn’t very dramatic and theatrical moves weren’t his thing but he couldn’t help imitating Maha a little. Nighat knew that Maha had finally woken the beast in him. He was extremely protective of Bilal and by the sound of it, she had insulted Bilal terribly.

When he was finally done, he felt better. He smiled a little and said,

“Who’d have thunk we’d bond over this?”

She didn’t smile. She looked at him with a strange look in her eyes. She had never really understood how far Azhar could go with his love for Bilal. But she could see he was distraught at how Maha had spoken with Bilal. He was a smart man. He had guessed a lot. Very accurately. He had spent a lifetime watching over Bilal. He could sense when something was harming him. He truly had an innate maternal instinct when it came to Bilal.

She finally smiled her cold smile that never reached her eyes,

“Well! Allegiances usually happen like this, son. When two people become friends over a common enemy”.

CHAPTER 45:

“Azhar!”

He heard his name and turned around to see her running towards him. He smiled immediately. His birthday the night before had been a bust. Maha had refused to come downstairs when it was time to cut the cake and even though everyone asked Bilal to get her, he didn’t humor her at all. They had a quiet dinner that Bilal had especially got catered from Azhar’s favorite restaurant but their spirits were crushed and so it was a very dull evening. Bilal gave him his present, a life size poster of Jessica Simpson, Azhar’s favorite woman in looks and body, much to the chagrin of their mother. They laughed at her prude comments and so the party livened up for five minutes before it was all wrapped up.

When Azhar came out to get water in the middle of the night, he saw Bilal sleeping on the family room couch .

Tanya came up to him panting and said brightly,

“Happy birthday”.

“Thanks. Why didn’t you text or call yesterday?”

“I thought you’d be busy with your family”.

I was, he thought, I was busy with my sad damaged family as Bilal calls it. And we keep adding sad people to it. May be you could change the undercurrent of moroseness?

“I was busy with them but had time to listen to you sing happy birthday”, he joked.

She blushed. She blushed easily. A pinkish hue would taint her cheeks until it got red and then it would fade over many hours.

“I felt bad about declining your invite”, she confessed.

“I felt bad about it too”, he continued to tease her.

“So I wanted to make it up to you. And where’s my cake?”

He had not brought the cake on purpose. It was a gloomy cake from a gloomy birthday and he didn’t want such energy around them.

“Sorry I didn’t bring it. More about that another time. How’re you making it up to me?”

“Come with me”.

She led him to her car, opened the door to the backseat and slid in. She came out with a small box and a long thin package that looked like it had a book.

“What’s this?” He asked.

“You ask way too many questions” she rolled her eyes.

She opened the small box and took out a cupcake. It was the daintiest cupcake, chocolate with strawberry frosting. There was a Microsoft logo on it and some other random logos plastered around the tiny cupcake. There was an Apple logo, a Lenovo, even an AMD. He stared at it.

“Where did you get this from?” He exclaimed.

“Made it” she said proudly. “It’s all edible. I made it all from frosting”.

Gratitude at having found her, pain at not being able to call her his own yet, sorrow at his brother’s fate, and love at the sweetest girl in the world came rushing forward in him. He stood still, wondering what to say and then finally managed,

“Tanya! I don’t know what to say”.

“I know you had a great party and this is nothing but……”

“Don’t say that”.

She smiled, “Happy birthday, Azhar”.

He took a picture of the cupcake before cutting it. They shared it and between mouthfuls she reminded him to open his present.

He opened it with sheer anticipation and a thin book with funny pictures dropped out.

“Dr. Seuss.”

“Yes”, she said excitedly, “I know you won’t read other types of doctor books but this one is right up your alley”.

His heart was full. He felt perfectly fed with half a cupcake. He felt like he got the most precious present in the whole world. Suddenly, everything seemed trivial. All the problems became surmountable. Tanya had that effect on people. He didn’t know it but she used to have the same effect on his brother many moons ago.

CHAPTER 46:

He knew Maha was timing sex. He knew why. They had had the marriage ceremony, the consummation, the falling back in routine and the occasional fight also. The next ceremony was a pregnancy and a child. He knew it. He hated predictability but lately, his life was defined the most astutely by that one thing.

Sex with Maha was….. lifeless. They both went through some sure moves and felt better about their marriage. During the day they became strangers again. They had never been lustful for each other but since she had been tracking her ovulation she was only interested two to three nights every month.

Her overall attitude towards sex was one of benevolence. He didn’t blame her for that. They had no heat, no fire, no charge. It was hard to enjoy it for anyone. He didn’t enjoy it either but knew that in a Pakistani household a husband who didn’t prove his virility to his wife was largely viewed as someone odd. He made love to her each time she asked for it. Besides that, he avoided her.

After eight months of being together, Maha got pregnant.

He thanked his stars because now he wouldn’t have to sleep with her.

Nighat Afshan wasn’t happy. Children weren’t particular favorites of her. And Maha was nasty during her pregnancy. What she covered with tact and flattery was uncovered by her raging hormones .

One morning as they were sitting on the breakfast table, Nighat addressed her with her usual curtness,

“When’s your due date?”

Maha didn’t reply. She sat seething inside but outwardly she remained quiet.

Nighat wasn’t used to this. She said a little louder,

“I asked when you are due”.

Maha cleared her throat and looked around the table. Bilal sat with his head low, eating omelette and toast. Hashir and Aman looked up, waiting for the familiar spat to begin.

“You can ask your son”.

Bilal said quietly,

“It’s many months from now. This is Maha’s third month”.

Nighat didn’t believe Maha’s insolence. She kept her anger in check however and asked Maha again,

“Does your mother know?”

“I told her as soon as the home pregnancy test came back positive. She has known it since then and told me I shouldn’t tell you until I had had the dating sonogram”.

Any other person, Nighat wouldn’t have tolerated this open disregard for her but she knew that having an open war with Maha wasn’t the answer.

There was only one answer. Get Azhar married. Bring another woman. Divide and conquer. And then watch it all slide in her favor again.

CHAPTER 47:

He came home skipping a little. He had spent the whole day with Tanya perfecting a few things on the health record. His growing closeness with her and the thought of Bilal’s soon-to-be baby kept him happy most of the time. Sometimes it scared him too. Happiness had been elusive for their family.

He came to find his mother sitting in the family room couch. Because everything had taken on a new meaning since Tanya had come into his life, his relationship with his mother had also gotten better. He had started to talk to her with respect and politeness occasionally. He didn’t love her on all occasions but had definitely developed a much better rapport with her than previously.

She looked like a piece of furniture in that moment and Azhar was struck by how old she sometimes looked. Sometimes, in vulnerable moments she looked old. She also looked more human then.

“What’s going on, Ami?” He sank in the couch next to her.

His closeness always warmed her. He was her life. If she had been more expressive she would have kissed him or hugged him or even just ruffled his hair. Instead she said,

“Nothing. Just wondering if it’s time to get some new stuff in our family room. All of this looks so old and drab now”.

It sure does, he thought.

Their home was decades old. Rumor had it that this was given to their mom as a wedding gift by her father but Sabir Hussain had cheated her into signing it off to him. Azhar had never asked her if this was true but suspected that there was truth to this story. Abu could kill for money and property.

Their home was largely decorated around their parents’ wedding. The family room too. It had a nine foot high ceiling with nine windows on the two walls that faced the sun. Someone who believed in bad feng shui had likely constructed it since despite the attention to numbers it had failed to bring any happiness.

The other two walls had portraits of their parents. Their mother, ethereal in her beauty and grace, with a face that seemed to have been chiseled out of the dreams that men chase, her body long and light, her hair chestnut in her youth. Their father, a shrewd-looking man with small features, tiny beady eyes that seemed to dart all around even in the still photo as if looking for a business opportunity, about four or five inches shorter that the woman next to him, with a hairline that was receding even in his heyday, his body not particularly strong looking even in his youth, his shoulders narrow. Beside their mother he made an unimpressive husband and together they made an unlikely couple.

The furniture was picked out by Ami or her parents, Azhar wasn’t sure. He had grown up with this couch and its two love seats. They were plonked unceremoniously in the middle of the family room when they were younger but as they got older all three pieces were pushed back to now rest against the widest wall. The two love seats lay on either side of the couch. They had a coffee table that was a solid oak piece with meaningless shapes carved on all sides, in poor taste.

Last year Ami had changed the curtains that had adorned this room for about thirty years. She had gotten another pair of horrendous looking curtains that stretched from one end of the family room door that opened into the living room to the other. Bilal and Azhar had objected to them and had suggested that may be they should get blinds instead but as her habit dictated, she didn’t listen. So now in addition to bad old furniture they had bad new curtains that were a faint shade of olive green with date palm trees printed on them.

He had however gotten his way with the family room rug last year and had brought home an exquisitely made Persian rug that had cost a fortune but was worth every dime. It was deep red with blue and purple embroidered motifs, a slightly appliqué effect created by an Iranian craftsman who regularly shipped these master pieces to Pakistan. The rug was hedged with a deep blue border. It was the softest wool and had not lost its luster or softness even though was in a slightly higher traffic area than the rest of the house.

“Agreeing with me, right?” She asked, always able to read his mind.

“Yes. Let me know when you want to do it. I can’t have you pick out everything. You have the worst taste in home decor”.

She became pensive. He could see her profile, thoughtful and sad, and regretted his flippancy. He didn’t deliberately hurt her. She was just not his favorite person.

His eyes roved back to the portrait on the wall. He had never quite gotten how a beauty like his mother could get married to his father and how his father wasn’t crazy about her. It seemed unfair when he saw his 18 year old mother in the portrait with a man much older than her, no commonality, no similarity.

“I seem to have a bad taste in people also. Look at Maha. I chose her and look what came out of that box”.

He winced at how she had taken to mentioning Maha as an inanimate object these days. He noticed that after their little heart to heart about Maha the other day, she had started to find it perfectly okay to gossip about her with him regularly. He couldn’t do that. He knew Bilal would be hurt if he found out. He knew Bilal didn’t like Maha but she was going to be the mother of his child and of course there was a sensitivity to this whole thing that they all had to respect.

“Ami! Can I request you to stop being critical of Maha? Let her be. You’re you and no one can threaten that. We will always be your sons. Why do you pick a competition with everyone? It doesn’t suit you. Someone like you who has spent a wholesome life has so much to impart and teach us. Don’t be petty. Try to win her with your wisdom. I’m sure she’ll respect you then”.

She fumed at his advocacy for another nincompoop in her book but was also gratified by his apparent high opinion of her.

Azhar watched her. He could sense the rising tension in their home between Maha and Ami and knew that Maha was trying to set the stage for separate accommodations. He couldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t be away from Bilal. He knew they’d have to be wise and understanding. They all had huge personalities but they didn’t all have to show their personalities all the time.

“You know that’s probably the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me”, she affectionately ruffled his hair. Finally.

“You deserve it.”

“Really? Can we talk about something else also? We both seem to have a good thing going on and usually with us it ends pretty quickly so I’ll just talk about something”.

He laughed.

She said,

“There’s a girl, Nina is her name. She is graduating from IBA this year. She has completed her BBA and would like to complete her MBA after getting married. Her dad is a retired army general. Very poised and graceful girl. I’ve met her a few times. Would you mind if I proceeded with asking for her photo so you could see her too?”

He listened quietly. The moment of truth was here. He hadn’t thought that when he had entered his home but he knew that one of these days, before Tanya finished her house job, he had to make a move.

“Ami!” He said picking his words carefully, feeling more nervous than he ever had in his life, “Actually, there is a girl I like a lot. She doesn’t know it yet but I know her for about a year and would like you to propose to her for me”.

The ground slipped from under her feet. The sky roared and became silent. She heard a loud crashing in her ears and then there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. To think that the son who was the center of her universe would be entertaining these ideas was torture to her. She had suspected there was someone a few times but knew Azhar wasn’t the type to romantically get involved easily.

Azhar watched the changing colors of his mother’s face. He knew she considered this treason. That her sons liked or loved anyone else was betrayal of the worst kind in her eyes. He watched her warily but surprisingly she remained composed. She didn’t say anything.

“Does she work with you”? She asked indifferently.

“Well, in a way, yes! The hospital I’m installing the program for, she’s a doctor there”.

This story sounded too familiar to her. The details were too close for comfort. What were the chances? No! She rejected the idea. No way could it be the same girl. That girl was an ordinary, geeky looking thing. She had seen her when Bilal had mentioned her. She had been to her medical college and asked around for her and seen her. But she didn’t think that was Azhar’s taste. Didn’t Bilal just give him his most admired woman’s poster on his birthday? She didn’t look anything like that wretched doctor.

“Does she have a name?”

Her name rolled off his tongue like he worshipped it,

“Tanya. Tanya Tariq”.

Every one has a moment of reckoning. This was Nighat’s.

CHAPTER 48:

She spent the night pacing. Up and down her cavernous room. Her husband watched her with his usual timid glances, from atop his horn-rimmed glasses and finally said,

“I think you should come to bed. We can’t solve this whole problem tonight”.

“Sleep”, she said shortly.

He sank lower in the bed but watched her with rising trepidation.

Nighat Afshan could sense something. It was in the air that surrounded her. A smell of her hair burning before her body caught on fire.

There were devils sniggering in her ears, suggesting wicked things and devious plans.

She had to act fast. She was a superstitious woman and couldn’t ignore the fact that Tanya Tariq’s name had become a regular in her home. And usually this name led to a fall out.

Her fall out with Bilal was inconsequential. Unloved son, little worry for him, miserable relationship with him all her life. She didn’t care about him.

But Azhar! He was the brightest star of the galaxy. Her number one son, literally and figuratively. He had inherited her brains and her looks. She had him when things were dark. When her husband had forced her into sexual and marital obedience. Things were very dark. Then she had gotten pregnant and her illiterate husband and his family had sent her to her parents’. She had stayed there for a year, during which she gave birth and raised Azhar for three months. She then came back to Sabir Hussain and the torment began again.

Azhar had been her savior, she hadn’t forgotten. He had saved her from her cruel and impotent husband. A husband who made up for the lack of sexual prowess by subjecting her to other horrors in the bedroom.

She wanted to go back to her parents. But decided against it. That would be accepting defeat. She was calculating and exacting by nature. She had stayed with him, procreated more sons with him, and now she had her army. Now her husband was a miserable wretch of a man in bed. He dare not touch her or she had threatened to call her sons.

So she couldn’t lose Azhar. Azhar was born to do her bidding. She had to carefully plan his life as how it would suit her. He was going to be her strength always.

What she hadn’t counted on was fate. Fate that hadn’t favored her much. Fate that had been her biggest enemy. Fate that had confronted her with Tanya Tariq again.

She thought about next steps. She had talked to Azhar in some detail and knew that he didn’t know that Tanya was his brother’s ex. She considered telling him that.

But no! She couldn’t count on Azhar’s honorable tendencies. Love can make people blind. What if he still didn’t listen? What if he still pursued her and forfeited everything for her? She couldn’t chance that. This needed a lot of strategy.

Azhar was elated since telling his mother about Tanya. She hadn’t been particularly jubilant to hear it but had also not been angry. Her reaction was very different compared to what it had been with Bilal.

In his excitement, he called Tanya,

“Hello. Why are you not sleeping?” She picked up the phone.

“I could ask you the same question”.

She sighed,

“We are just wondering what to eat”.

“Are you on call?”

“Yes”.

“Oh”.

She laughed.

“But I can talk. Don’t hang up”.

He was encouraged by her voice. She was really the sweetest girl.

“Tanya! Can I ask you something?”

“Sure”.

“Will you ever get married?”

She considered his question for a few seconds. Was this a proposal? Their relationship had been more unconventional recently and she felt drawn to him like a friend but nothing else. She had thought about it and he would be out of the question even if she felt attracted to him. He was Bilal’s brother. This was practically incestuous.

“I don’t think about marriage” she was truthful.

“Okay. But let’s suppose someone asked you to think about it, would you?”

“No”.

“Why?”

“Hey Azhar!” She said, not able to hang up faster, “I gotta go. I’ll see you tomorrow”.

She hung up before he could say bye. He thought he heard a no in her voice. His heart beat erratically. A dull thudding happened in his ears for a bit and then he calmed himself.

She hasn’t said no yet, his heart spoke up, always the optimist.

CHAPTER 49:

Azhar had a bad cold the next day and so had to stay at home. He sniffed and coughed and sneezed but nothing made him feel better. He was born with asthma and spring made it worse. Sometimes winter too.

They were eating breakfast together. Nighat didn’t have a strategy and didn’t want to make any wrong moves. She was quietly eating, her eyes occasionally wandering to stare in a distance and then would refocus again on her food.

Azhar had to speak with her again. He had a feeling that he would need her to convince Tanya and her family. He was pretty sure that Tanya had no romantic feelings for him and therefore feared a rejection if he directly proposed to her. If the conversation last night was any indication, he needed his family behind him. Also, he had seen how his mother had labeled Bilal’s girlfriend a whore just because they were seeing each other as significant others. No! He couldn’t do that to Tanya. If Tanya was to come here then he didn’t want anyone to think any less of her just because he had chosen her himself .

Nighat got up after finishing breakfast. He followed her into her room.

“Azhar”, she turned around, “I need time to think”.

“Time to think about what?” He was persistent. “I’ve chosen her. All you have to do is go to her place and talk to her mother”.

“Don’t order me. I won’t do things just because I’m told.”, she hissed.

“This particular thing”, he said with his voice rising, “will happen exactly how I want it to”.

She saw the anger in his eyes and was afraid for a second. He was determined and resilient about whatever he set his heart to. Azhar Hussain didn’t listen to people. People listened to him and he knew that.

“I don’t think that yelling at me will convince me any better”, she replied calmly.

“Okay I won’t yell”, he continued to advance towards her, “But you have to give me an answer by the afternoon. Do you get that?” He turned to leave and took long strides towards the door.

“I don’t have to do anything that you tell me to do”, she screamed. “I’m your mother. Did you forget what I did to that favorite underdog of yours? You should remember that. After all, he’s your everything”.

He was still with his back to her.

He stood at the mahogany door that Nighat’s father had especially had carved by the chief carpenters and wood crafters from Sialkot, Punjab for her marital home. It still was a sight to behold with its Mughal style patterns and the etching of a mosque in the middle. Amidst the retro chic and substandard furniture in her room, the door stood out with its originality and beauty. He stood at the door, his hand on the knob, and turned slowly, his eyes flashing,

“I’m giving you until afternoon. About five hours. Make up your mind. I didn’t forget what you did to Bilal . But you seem to be forgetting that I’m not Bilal”.

She watched the door slam shut behind him.

CHAPTER 50:

Noon came and went. She didn’t come to speak with him and he didn’t either.

He called Bilal and asked him to come over.

And now Bilal was sitting in Azhar’s room watching him tracing his own steps, like a caged animal.

“Azhar! I’m worried. What’s going on?”

“There’s a girl”, he started.

“I know that. What happened? Did you guys break up?”

He shook his head.

“No. She doesn’t know I like her. Actually love her. She doesn’t know that”.

“She doesn’t know? You didn’t tell her? Why?”

“She was in a bad relationship. And she isn’t interested in me like that. But I can still marry her, right? I don’t have to have a relationship with her. I can propose to her but I have a feeling she won’t accept because of whatever happened in the past. And I’ve tried to bring it up and frankly, it didn’t go anywhere”.

“So what do you plan to do?”

“I’ve asked Ami to talk to her family and propose”.

Bilal, in spite of himself, laughed. He laughed, the same cold, high-pitched laugh that Azhar reserved for the more ironic events in life. Azhar stared at him, wondering if he had gone crazy.

“You guys are all so stupid”, Bilal finally said, recovering and still shaking with suppressed laughter, “you really are all so stupid. Really, really, really stupid”.

Azhar continued to stare at him. He used to have these spells when he had just had the breakup with his girlfriend. He hadn’t acted like this in a long time. He was scary when he was like this.

“Azhar”, he said, holding his sides while trying to control his laugher, “Do you know what happened to me? Do you remember? Do you think what happened to me happened because I’m Bilal? Do you think it won’t happen to you because you’re Azhar? Come on, man! Haven’t you figured it out yet? Have you got no idea why our lives are so messed up? Why I’m married to a woman who is more interested in being Ami’s soldier instead of my wife? Why you’re not married before me? You don’t get any of it, right? You’re so stupid. You really are a lot less smart than I have always considered you to be. You’re like me. Just like me. You trusted the snake and now the snake has bitten you”.

He lapsed into convulsive laughter again.

Azhar felt like a fool. Of course this wasn’t about Ami’s values, traditions and beliefs. This wasn’t about who she thought was good for him or his brothers. This wasn’t about watching out for them. This wasn’t because she had a twisted weird way of spending life. This was about control.

But she hadn’t counted on how headstrong he could be. He was her son. The son that she had always said was so much like her. Now was the time to show her exactly how ugly the monster was that she had given birth to.

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