He marched up to her soon after noon and demanded,
“Are you going to do what I’m requesting you to?”
“You’re not requesting”.
She was sitting in her room, a place that was fast becoming a scene for her repeat cruelty. Bilal had followed him and stood at the door, a feeling of deja vu coming on strongly.
He had fought the weakest battle in the history of all lovers. He didn’t have the glint in his eye that Azhar had. He didn’t have the resolve that made Azhar stand tall. He didn’t have an argument or a speech or a request or any tears to spare for Tanya. Nothing. None whatsoever.
So why was he sad at his story of unrequited love? It ended exactly how he fought the war that was going to immortalize it. Without any passion or fervor. Ami said no and he took her no.
Azhar had eyes blazing, nostrils flared and fists balled. He was the complete opposite of a cowardly Bilal standing in this room almost a year ago. Azhar won’t accept a sentence as he had, he had a feeling. Azhar will fight as he had always fought. Azhar will survive as he always had.
Nighat was sitting where she always sat. In her recliner, against the farthest wall of the room, where light didn’t reach completely and so she could gaze at the stars out the window. This recliner was her retreat . She sat in it and reminisced about the days when she was a young girl with dreams and ideas. She fantasized about a life as a doctor. She wished for death when she sat in this recliner.
Time, she thought, was changing on her. It was hers for a few years. A few good years. She had watched Sabir Hussain become meek and withdrawn in the bedroom. Slowly, inexplicably, she had emasculated him. She had no remorse about that. If the world could see his true face, he’d be hated worse than a rabid dog, she thought savagely.
This room bore testament to her trials. The constant humiliation that he reserved for her. His insecurities rearing their ugly head as suspicions about her character. His anger translating to brutal physical violence and many rapes.
Why Abu, she asked her father in her head, why did you choose him for me? Was he so special that you gave him your child?
But now her problems had changed. She had had to fix her husband with many thinly veiled warnings and insults, some she was too embarrassed to admit to herself. She couldn’t do that to her children, especially Azhar. He needed to be cared for very differently.
Azhar was passionate, she knew. The quality that Bilal lacked the most. People would blame her if they found out that she rejected Bilal’s girlfriend. But how much did Bilal put himself out for his love? She had to just say no twice and he surrendered. So like his father. A spineless dimwit. His love for the girl was also just like him: ephemeral and transient.
But Azhar was not going to leave until she answered him. He wasn’t going to take a no. But she couldn’t give him a yes. Any other girl she would have considered. Not Tanya. Not the girl who had bewitched two of her boys.
“I want to know why you’re objecting?” Azhar said agitatedly.
“I have no objection except I want you to marry someone from a family I know of. I have already made a mistake with Bilal’s match. I can’t have another dirty blood in this family”.
“Shut up! Shut up about Maha!” Azhar yelled . “You won’t call her names. She’s my sister. She’s the only woman like a sister to me. Don’t you dare disrespect the woman who will give my brother a child. No! You keep forgetting that I don’t care how much I have to go against you. I won’t let you disrespect Maha and I won’t let you ever call the woman I love a filthy name. Never!”
“So go ask her mother for her hand”, she said turning her back on them. “And Bilal!” She added as an afterthought , “While you are both at it, why don’t you ask your brother to fill you in on who he has picked for himself? I’m sure you’ll approve. After all,” she flicked some dust off of the arm of the recliner before settling in it and turning to the setting sun outside, “You both have had a similar taste in almost all things in life”.
For someone who had been rebuked by Ami much worse than he was, Azhar was certainly in great spirits. Bilal wondered what gave his older brother so much confidence. He wondered what it would be like to be sure of oneself. To not waver. To not falter. To never disappoint another person.
Maha had gone for a few days to her parents’ and the insomnia had come back in full force.
He stayed awake all night staring at the ceiling, something like a movie reel would run there, enchanting him, mesmerizing him.
Tanya’s hands in his. Her lips on his. Her body in his arms.
When she laughed and punched him.
When she remembered dates of ridiculous things about their relationship. The first time they met, the first time he kissed her, the first time they had pizza together, the first time they had sushi together, the first ride in his new car.
Her absolutely intense craze for feminism and gender equality. How she fought for ideas and ideologies. How she understood Islam and what being a Muslim meant. How she reasoned with him. How she was always in awe at the expert driver that he was.
He had started to teach her to drive and they had never been able to work on the lesson too long. Soon after starting, she would ask him to kiss her and they would park and make out for hours.
He tossed and turned in bed, wondering where the good days went, then got up to join Azhar to the mosque for Fajr.
In Maha’s absence, life had become idyllic. He had started spending more time with Azhar, even though Azhar wasn’t available much. He was finalizing his software at the hospital and these were the last few days that he was working there. Then he was going to another hospital.
The next morning, after Fajr, Azhar asked him to get ready for a surprise.
“What’s it?” He asked eagerly.
“It’s a surprise, Einstein”, Azhar rolled his eyes.
“Okay. What should I wear? Just casual?”
“Yup. You have to make a great first impression”.
“You’re scaring me, man! Where are we going?”
“You know, for a guy as sharp as you, you are being very thick. What does a surprise mean to you?”
“Okay, okay”, Bilal threw up his hands, “I’m gonna change quickly and let Abu know I won’t be at work today”.
“What is your life now, businessman? You can just skip work like that? Makes me realize how much it sucks to be waged”.
“Trust me, working with Abu isn’t a walk in the park. He is so meticulous and finicky. Really puts a damper on everything”.
They kept talking about their business all the way home, then parted for a few minutes to change into slacks and shirts and business casual shoes. They got in the car, Azhar was driving and set off.
They chatted all the way. They never had trouble talking. They talked about everything under the sun. Bilal’s extensive knowledge of the NBA, cricket and tennis was envied by Azhar a lot. He could listen to sports stuff all day long when Bilal talked about it. He didn’t particularly watch sports unless Bilal was watching it too.
They reached Civil Hospital.
Bilal was getting worried. Why were they here? What was the surprise? Did Azhar want him to reconcile with Tanya? Had he somehow found out that he was still in love with her and thought this was a good way to bring them together? He didn’t put that past his brother. He was sure that Azhar knew his agony and was may be either trying for them to get back together or arrange one last meeting for closure.
Closure would be good, he thought. He hated it before but now, anything that let him show Tanya that she will never be forgotten would be good.
“Wait for me, okay?” Azhar said excitedly and left.
Images came rushing back to him from the past. Tanya walking towards him through those gates. Her eyes alive with the eagerness to see him. Her small body, so perfectly proportioned, dropping into the seat next to him. Her hand slipping into his as soon as she got in the car. Her nonstop relaying of all that happened that day. And finally his patience giving in and her nubile surrender.
Memories! Pleasant and painful. Rich and dark. Worth saving and dying for.
Azhar ran inside the surgical unit where she had been working. He hadn’t seen her for a few days and she had texted him just that morning asking if his sinuses and asthma were better. He had told her that he’d come for a little bit to see her and she had asked him not to. But he had to. He had to see her. And Bilal had to see her too.
“You’re certainly better if you can run that fast”, she laughed as he came up to her, holding his side.
“This darn place”, he looked around at the surgical ward, “why are hospitals so complicated?”
She looked at him affectionately. She’ll miss him. He had become a companion of her sadness and loneliness. The distance from Bilal had lessened a little because of him. He had become the string that kept her attached to Bilal but just enough that she knew what was going on in his life. Nothing more.
“I have a surprise for you”, he said awkwardly.
“I’m in rounds”.
“Please! These stupid rounds keep happening all day long. Can you come with me for just ten minutes?”
He never acted juvenile or overtly enthused like this. Suspecting that he had gotten a present as a goodbye before he left, she decided to break off and go with him.
“Okay but just ten minutes. I’m in rounds and they’ll soon reach my patients”.
“Alright, Tanya! Gosh! No fun bone in your body. I bunked all the classes when I was in NED”.
They were walking towards his car.
“Of course you bunked them. This is why you couldn’t spell ‘prestigious’ the other day”.
“NED is the engineering school. They don’t teach spellings there. I don’t know how to spell because of all the classes I bunked in elementary school”.
She laughed lightly. They were getting closer to his car.
Bilal saw her coming. The same frame, the same brisk walk, the same dark hair that she had let down today and that bounced in the air around her.
The sun had come out completely and everything was covered with a dull sunshine that’s so characteristic of the morning sun. People were driving into the parking lot and running into their designated wards and offices. Many girls were sitting in an SUV, sharing food and chatting nonstop.
She continued to move towards him. Purposefully like she used to. She wore a blue outfit, a shalwar kameez with a dupatta, a traditional Pakistani attire.
Their breakup had definitely caused her to get thinner but she was gorgeous like always. Her pink skin shone at him from a distance. Her hair always framed her face and the contrast between her pinkish brown complexion and black hair was a vision to behold. It drove him crazy .
She kept coming closer. His heart was quiet, silently waiting for him to tell it what to do. Should it be happy or sad? Should it be merry at the chance for closure? Or devastated that closure was imminent? He silenced his heart. He had to use all of his senses to preserve the vision of her walking towards him probably for the last time.
Someone cut across her and started walking towards Bilal. Bilal was momentarily annoyed at whoever was obstructing his view. He didn’t want any obstacles in their way. There had been many anyway.
Someone was walking faster now, closing the distance between them, winking at him, a roguish grin on his face. With a jolt he realized it was Azhar. He ran up to Bilal before Tanya could reach them, pulled him out of the car and whispered urgently in his ear,
“Get down! Brought your sister-in-law to meet you. Isn’t she one in a million?”
As stars danced in his eyes, he managed to stumble out of the car. Azhar didn’t notice anything while enjoying the ecstasy that he felt at introducing the two dearest people of his to each other.
Tanya was now directly in front of him, facing him, a look of anger, pain and surprise in her face. She didn’t get any of it.
“Tanya!” Azhar’s voice seemed to come from a great distance, “Meet Bilal. My best friend, my favorite brother and my partner in crime and life and, Bilal! This is Tanya. She’s the doctor I told you about”.
Bilal saw the look of dawning comprehension in Tanya’s face as she put two and two together, forced a smile and extended her hand to shake his.
He took her hand and felt a chill run through his body.
He got it all within seconds but his mind refused to accept it. He stood there, trying to do the math again, making sure that there weren’t any mistakes the first time.
Tanya and Bilal.
Bilal and Tanya. That was it. That was all the math that there was.
He looked at his brother, and wondered which one of them was his greater love.
Azhar! Azhar! Azhar! Azhar was above everything else. Bilal had left Tanya once for him. He will leave Tanya again for him.
She stood still, unsure of what she had done to life to deserve this.
They were both transported to another time, when life belonged to them. Now they borrowed sparks from the ashes of their former life and tried to ignite some warmth in moments of bone-chilling ugly truths.
When they named themselves to one another. Now they looked for their identity between love and loss.
When they had vowed to die if they couldn’t get each other. Now they prayed for death and suddenly it occurred to them that death wasn’t easy or liberating.
Azhar was on cloud nine. Two of his favorite people had finally met. Tanya and Bilal both could be shy so it was totally normal that they weren’t talking much.
From a trench she heard a ringing. Loud, grating on her nerves, like a thousand lost corpses were scratching at their coffins to get out. Then she realized it was her pager. She looked at it in a daze, looked up and said like she was speaking in her sleep,
“I’m sorry. I have to go. They’re waiting for me”.
She turned around and walked quickly away from them, then broke in a run and soon faded in the distance.
Rounds, she abandoned.
She went home to hide from it all. The life that chased her. The humiliation that had got her number. She ran in her room and collapsed on her bed.
Sarah came running after her. She knew her sister needed a friend. Someone to cry with without the fear of judgment. So she cried with Tanya.
As they looked up after crying for many minutes, they saw their mother standing at the threshold, with red-rimmed eyes and a world of agony in her face.
She came forward and hugged her daughters.
“Mama!” Tanya said, between hiccups, “I just want to go somewhere where nothing follows me. Nothing. Not Bilal. Not his family. No one”.
If she could, she would’ve hidden her child from the world. Asma couldn’t help Tanya. In the bid for love, her daughter had auctioned off her peace, heart and sanity.
“Listen”, she took Tanya’s wrists in her hands, looking closely at her face and wondering where the youth and carefree days of her once-happy child went. “You can’t run from it. How are you going to be stronger if you keep running? I’ve told you to pray more. Meditate more. And…..” she hesitated before adding, “May be start seeing someone again. It will take your mind off”.
She knew she had said something wrong as soon as the words left her mouth. She saw Tanya’s face turning from sad to thunderous, transforming to an ugly sullen woman that Asma sometimes didn’t even recognize but had seen before in Tanya. She cried for her at night and asked Allah for forgiveness so her child could be delivered but no forgiveness came forth.
Tanya advanced towards Asma like a caged animal. Sarah tried to hold her back but she shrugged her off, almost effortlessly, her eyes boring into her mother’s, the days of wretched longing and the nights of loveless sleeplessness etched in her youthful face. She looked about a hundred years old and seemed to have been possessed by the devil.
“What did you say? Start seeing someone else? Like who?”
Asma cowered under her look. As a child, Tanya was smart and funny, as a teenager she had a few rebellious moments but found great camaraderie with Tariq who was always more like a friend to his kids. But Bilal had changed her. Her breakup had changed her into a wary woman who watched out constantly for signs of deceit and fraud. She had lost her innocence. She had lost her youth.
“You have to listen to me, Tanya! You can’t be grieving about this forever. Look at yourself. You don’t eat. You don’t go out except to the hospital. And only God knows if you sleep”.
“I want you to answer me. Don’t try to avoid it. Who do you want me to date? Who did you have in mind?”
Asma contemplated. There was a man, someone who worked with Tanya who liked her a lot and had expressed a lot of interest in her. His mother had not formally approached Asma for a proposal but she had told Asma that Nyle liked Tanya a lot for her professionalism and dedication. Asma could put two and two together. Nyle’s family had moved in the area a year ago and Asma and his mother, Rabia, had become good friends.
She was scared to mention anything to Tanya. She was afraid of the reaction and the madness that usually followed all this. She said haltingly,
“I know of a guy. He’s a pharmacist. You two will make a great match. I think you should consider him”.
“The only man who’d make a great match with me is Bilal. Can you get him for me?” She asked, cocking her head to the side and looking at her mother shrewdly, like they’ll come up with a bargain. Asma felt her temper rising.
“Be sensible. I’m sick of this. You have no shame. After having an illicit relationship for two years with him you are damaged goods and don’t even realize it. I can’t get you Bilal. No one can get you Bilal. He’s happy. He’s married, right? He married a few months after leaving you. Do you think you’re so important to him? You never were. This is the problem. Someone said a few nice things and you gave him your heart. Where’s his heart? With his wife. I don’t know if you want to die as Bilal’s ex-lover but I sure can’t deal with this.”
Asma turned to leave the room. She heard Tanya,
“Get lost, Mama. Go! I don’t need you anyway. You never liked him so this must be good for you. Just how you wanted. I’m so glad at least one of us has their life working out for them”.
She turned around, roughly grabbed her sister’s shoulder who was speechless at the toxicity that she saw traveling between her sister and mother, and said,
“Get out. Leave me alone”.
Suddenly, she wanted to be alone. Suddenly she wanted to think about the man who made her laugh until her sides hurt. Who kissed her until she was gasping for air. Who loved her until she couldn’t take it anymore. Who had hurt her until she couldn’t breath anymore.
Night fell. She was asleep on the carpet, dreaming of sports cars, the Amalfi Coast, her blue outfit standing out amidst the blueness of the local architecture. There was someone in the distance, looking at her, and if she hadn’t spent so much time with him, she wouldn’t have recognized him from such great distance. She ran to him as soon as she saw him, not able to curb the urgency to be in his embrace. She kept running and the man opened his arms. She kept getting closer. That face was worth running to for an entire lifetime. The stranger had a smile on his full lips and looked relaxed against a wall. He was leaning back and seemed to have something like a gold ring in his hands.
“About time”, she thought happily, while continuing running.
As she got closer, his face came into focus more. He was the most handsome man she had ever laid eyes on. His strong jaw against the white and blue background stood out to her always for its honesty and strength. She ran to him and couldn’t stop. Finally she sprinted to him the last few steps and landed in his arms. He hugged her tightly and as she breathed in his exotic fragrance, she realized something was different. She disentangled herself from his arms and looked at his face.
It was Azhar.
Tanya’s agonized howls were drowned by the thunder outside. She sobbed and lamented the death of love one more time. She curled up in a fetal position and cursed every living being that had borne any witness to her love for Bilal.
She then typed a short message to her mother.
“You’re right. I should meet other people”.
It was the crack of dawn. She slept fitfully for a few hours until it was time to go to work.
It was late at night and he was wide awake. They both loved Michael Jackson’s “Don’t stop til you get enough” and this moment seemed apropos. He thought about all the times they had danced to it, kissed to it and planned intimate moments around it.
The shock in her face was something to behold. And her eyes! Wide and scared. Did his eyes look like that too?
But why, he felt his heart get heavy, has she not changed? Why is she still the same virginal beauty that I craved more than life? I’m going to be a father soon. Married. Running my father’s business. I have come so far. But why is she stuck in exactly the same place where I left her? With the same wild hair and the rainbow in her cheeks. That was our happy place. It isn’t fair that she gets to stay there and I have to pretend that I consider Maha my wife. It isn’t fair.
His mind kept running in circles until he heard the prayer call for Fajr. He was exhausted with the thinking, the reminiscing, the yearning, the suffering and the repenting. There was nothing that he hadn’t lived in the last eight hours, sitting in his marital bed, with not the woman of his dreams.
Fajr broke his reverie. Instantly Tanya disappeared and another face took over his mind. The face that shone like the sun. It stood out bright and honest like it always had. Strong and determined. Passionate and in love. He let himself watch Azhar with his mind’s eye, simple and logical, supportive and inspiring. His only brother who felt like a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, a significant other. The soul he had buried all his secrets in was Azhar’s. The heart that had never turned him away was Azhar’s. The warmth that he had ever gotten from life was Azhar’s. And the biggest price that he’d pay for love would be to Azhar. The brother who was worth all the brothers in the world.
Azhar smiled and turned over, almost ready to say Tahajjud before the Fajr call reached him. He had to thank Him for all the blessings and all the tests that had made him strong. He couldn’t forget the look on Bilal’s face when he saw Tanya. She was truly someone who could leave people speechless. Why, he had been speechless for the most part around her when he had just met her. She had a quiet force that emanated from her smarts and became overwhelmingly captivating over time. No wonder his mother felt intimidated by her and didn’t even want to see her. Tanya was a force to reckon. And Bilal only had good things to say about her. Initially he was quiet but that was a very characteristic Bilal trait. He was shy and reserved when he met someone new. This side of his was endearing and reminded Azhar of the days when they were both kids and Azhar fought Bilal’s battles on the school bus. Now he had to convince his mother. And if she didn’t agree, well, too bad!
He played his conversation with Bilal in his head as he went to wake him up for Fajr so they could go to the mosque together,
“Did you like her, Billu?”
“Yes! I liked her a lot. She’s just like you had said. One in a million”.
He waited outside her surgical ward like he normally did. She never kept him waiting. Partly because she had to eat lunch at one or she missed the window when she could eat and partly because at one the cafeteria made fresh samosas that they ate everyday.
But she didn’t come out at their usual time. He stood under the sun, waiting for her, contemplating whether he should text her, wondering if rounds took this long.
Soon anticipation was replaced by anxiety. Was she okay? Did she even come to work today? She normally didn’t miss any days unless it was a health issue.
He texted her after waiting for fifteen minutes. His handsome face looked worried and he was sweating profusely now. He had worn a new blue shirt that now was drenched.
She didn’t respond to the text.
The surgical ward, if possible had even sicker patients than the medical ward, but he had to go in. So he went up the steps and entered a long hallway that he had walked so many times before, watching her at the end of it, gesturing to him that she’d take just a minute longer and he had waited. And watched her. Wrapping up the orders, occasionally looking up and smiling at him, the dearest girl in the whole world.
He walked down the hallway and soon came face to face with the operating room. He knew he couldn’t go in but peeked through the glass pane and saw Tanya scrubbing. He deliberated for a second and then knocked.
She didn’t look up.
He knocked again.
She kept meticulously washing her hands and putting on protective equipment.
He knocked more urgently. She looked up finally.
He sighed at her finally looking up. He sometimes despaired that this would all end in nothing and they’ll not ever get together. He had thought of telling her but it wasn’t like he had never talked to her about the future. He had and she had been dismissive at best, and angry at worst. It was hard to not be a little scared of her anger.
She stared at him. They kept looking at each other, time stopped and people stood still around them. Through the small glass window of the scrub room she saw Bilal’s brother, looking at her, pleading to let him in.
Why is this happening, she asked herself. Somehow the crime didn’t fit the punishment. Is loving someone a crime that she had committed? Is wanting someone in exchange for life itself not right?
Bilal had looked so good, like the tests of time had merely washed over him. Then why was she unrecognizable in the mirror?
Bilal was married, on the way to be a father, sleeping with another woman, making his business flourish, while she was counting the days until the pain got less, the tears dried.
And Azhar! Why another test? Another trial? When poets spoke of tests for lovers, did they think that one of the tests could be that you were confronted with your ex in the most humiliating situations again and again and again?
Azhar had become a friend. A friend who talked about Bilal. This was the long and short of this friendship. She loved him as Bilal’s brother but it had started to look that he loved her in another capacity.
She laughed to herself derisively. History talks of women who slept with the father and sons and the sons of sons to help them know what a woman wants. She had become another such woman. Over and over, the powers that be demanded for her to be the woman to show pain, love and distance to the Hussain brothers.
But that’s not true! She reasoned with herself. I’m not living vicariously through Azhar. I love Azhar like a friend, like someone who has listened without judgment, who has understood my tears more than others have with my detailed explanations. He has been there. Truly! Like a friend. Like a brother.
But wait! He’s not my brother. He will never be. He is Bilal’s brother. The man who owns me still.
She watched Azhar excitedly gesturing for her to step out for lunch and pointing to his watch. She smiled. He was so similar to Bilal but there was something about him that was unique and even, refreshing.
Few people had cared for her. She had become the pillar for her family after her father’s death. Then Bilal was always cared for by her. She cared about his feelings and insecurities. She listened to him even though he didn’t share as much as Azhar did. But Azhar cared for her. May be because he had never known another role in any relationship.
She motioned to him to wait, then excused herself out of the surgery, went in the anteroom to change back into her clothes and stepped out.
“Thank you for gracing the occasion. Been waiting for thirty minutes and making monkey gestures for you to come out for fifteen”.
“Those were monkey gestures for me to come out? Thank God I’m so smart. I thought you were miming drowning.” She deadpanned.
“Jeez Louise! Look at me! Really I’ve never waited for anyone except when Bilal asked me to stand outside the exam room because when I left he felt nervous. And also because sometimes I smuggled some material to him”.
“What material?” She asked curiously.
“You know. To cheat!” He said casually.
Somehow, the instinctual temperamental in her couldn’t resist,
“I wish you hadn’t done that, Azhar! It has probably made him a cheater for life”.
He didn’t get the sarcasm. When he was with Tanya, very little outside of their bubble mattered.
“So that was your brother, huh?” She asked casually.
“Brother doesn’t seem the right word for him. More like my life. What makes my world go round”.
“I can’t explain it. It’s a different thing that I have with Bilal. You might understand it better if you spent some time with us”.
I don’t want to, she thought savagely, you’re a bunch of losers.
“He liked you a lot”, he broke the silence that had crept in much more today than he liked.
The were waking towards the cafeteria, a herd of medical students, residents, interns and attendings joining them along the way and now they were all trying to climb through the small gate that opened into Dow Medical College.
“What did he like about me? We barely spoke”.
“He didn’t say exactly what but he liked you. I can tell what he thinks”.
“Have you ever considered the possibility that he might have parts of his mind and body and soul that you don’t know?”
As strange as he found that question, it wasn’t just this question. He couldn’t ignore the lack of enthusiasm, the absence of her brisk walk towards the cafe today and he missed her usual constant expression of how much she had been looking forward to the samosa.
“Tanya!” He asked haltingly, “Are you okay?”
Before she could say anything, he added,
“Be honest! You didn’t like that I brought him to see you, right?”
Be honest? She wanted to grab his collar and tell him that there was not one honest thing about her now or her past. Nothing! So when you haven’t been honest with love, you can’t possibly be honest with the consequences of love. Or the trials of love. Or the tribulations of it. There was nothing honest about her past with the man who stripped her of dignity and hope. Honesty wasn’t why she was alone and lonely. All that she had in her story with Azhar’s brother was love and the giving up of love. So it became the antithesis of honest, upright and forthcoming.
She looked at him and smiled at how intently he had been waiting for an answer. Persistence and patience weren’t Bilal’s strongest suits.
“I don’t like surprises” she said softly.
“Believe me, if I wasn’t so scared of you, I would’ve told you beforehand”.
“Okay so your excuse is that I’m scary. Wouldn’t you argue that the fear of my scariness would’ve kept you from doing that?”
“You’re scary but you’re also very sweet”. He said, flashing her a goofy smile.
Her smile deepened. She had never been able to be angry with Bilal and now being upset at Azhar was also becoming hard.
“It’s okay. What’s done is done”. She said shrugging her shoulders, fishing in her bag for money.
“But listen!” He said insistently, obstructing her from reaching in to the pits of her bag by moving her bag slightly, “Did you like him?”
She didn’t look at him. She kept busy with her bag and heard coins rattling at the bottom.
Did I like him, you ask? Yes I liked him. Just as I liked him one day years ago at a blind date that actually wasn’t even for us. I liked the undertone of sexiness and his dazzling smile. I liked him all the way up to when he broke up with me, mere days after I asked him to ask your mother to speak with mine. Then I stopped liking him and now just carry a wound that’s laid open by the mention of him. I used to like him a lot, all the way until we separated and now all that’s left is love so intense that if I didn’t contain it within my body and fed it from the debris of broken trust and mangled faith, it would break through all the barriers that families created between him and me.
“I didn’t meet him long enough to like him”.
“Hmm”, he was thoughtful. “I’m sorry if I overstepped my boundaries. We have become friends but sometimes I don’t know how good of friends we are”.
So you’re different from your brother after all, she acknowledged him silently, see he knew I was meant for him the moment he laid eyes on me.
But to him she said,
“I stopped defining and describing and comparing and sketching our relationships a long time ago. It cheapens them”.
“Okay so you’re not upset? I can still be your friend? You won’t ask me to spell a medical term that you’ve invented standing here?”
She laughed, for the first time in many days,
“I’m not upset. You can still be my friend. And I’ve never invented medical terms on the spot because I don’t know Latin”.
He laughed too and together they went up the steps to the cafeteria where they both grabbed their corner and ordered six samosas and two cokes as usual. Two for her and four for him.
The cafeteria at Dow is the perfect place for people to unwind. The girls’ cafeteria is a place where usually girls get their food, then make their way to the girls’ common room behind the building and finish their lunch between saying Duhr prayer and catching up on gossip. The girls’ cafeteria has a long winding flight of steps that leads to another cafeteria above it where both boys and girls can sit and eat. At the back of Dow is another cafeteria for the more rugged people. People who are part of political groups and parties and are too macho for enclosed cafeterias. But the majority of people sit outside all the cafeterias in front of the Main Auditorium, across from where the cricket pitch and the volley ball court is. This is where most people eat and drink, constantly keeping a wary eye on the swinging big volley ball that threatens to hit at anytime. Sometimes, more adventurous people sit in the basketball court which is technically not a place to eat but because the administration gave up on setting any rules for doctors a long time ago, that place became popular for couples sitting together, planning their futures together and wondering where all the time went. Azhar and Tanya sat in any one of them but their favorite spot was the tuck shop in the back of the college. Here they had their own spot for the past year and had heard cat calls and whistles too at them.
Usually Tanya didn’t pay much attention to these cat callers but sometimes they got to her. Azhar was so cool that nothing bothered him. With time, people saw that they were going to hang out together no matter what and so slowly but noticeably, they were left alone.
“So what are you going to do after your house job?” He asked casually. Everyone had been asking her this and so it had been annoying.
“Why are you worried about my plans?” She said, irritated. “You should be worried about your job finishing soon”.
He smarted a little at her reaction but overcame it quickly.
“I didn’t mean it like that. I have a job lined up. I didn’t know what you were doing”.
She was embarrassed at her reaction. She knew it was a bad idea to have lunch with him today. She was going to be angry at her life and he was going to have to take all of it.
“Sorry. I don’t know why I’m so ticked. Nothing seems good”. Tears threatened to spill.
He was quiet. Sometimes the urge to ask what happened in the past was overwhelming. But he had restrained himself so far. They were good friends but there was truly a scary side to her. But today he ventured,
“Can I ask you something?”
“Were you in a relationship before and it didn’t work out?”
She looked at the table. Of course I was in a relationship, you idiot. I was in the best relationship of my life. My soul mate was in my arms all the time. And now I’m bereft.
“Then what happened?”
“He left me. He had to choose between me and his family and he chose them. You know, the usual Pakistani story”.
All-consuming sadness overcame him. Is this how Bilal’s ex must feel also now? If yes, then Ami has so much to answer for.
“Would moving on be an option?” He asked, afraid she was going to fire up.
Surprisingly she said,
“Absolutely. That’s always an option. But I would want to move on in my own time. Not because people tell me that I’ve grieved enough”.
They were quiet.
Did she say grieved? He thought. Well, I guess I’d have to grieve for centuries if I didn’t get her. She’s right. Love lost needs grieving.
“But don’t worry about me”, she said, touching his arm slightly, worried that she had troubled him with her misfortunes, “I’m fine. Really! I am at least talking and walking and eating. When it all happened, I tried to kill myself by not eating. I’m in a much better place”.
Somehow it was easier to talk to Azhar who knew nothing. Somehow it was lighter. It was the first intimate moment she had shared with him and it felt good. Her friends hadn’t known about her relationship with Bilal and she felt like a fool confiding in them after the breakup. She didn’t want to be another failed love statistic.
“That’s good to know”, he said, still thinking about something and speaking distractedly.
They finished lunch and paid. In the one year that they had been friends, they had never paid for each other.
They walked back to the hospital. Suddenly Tanya waved to someone. Azhar tried to focus but could only see a short, balding guy coming over.
As he drew closer he realized it was Nyle Ansari.
“Azhar! You remember Nyle, don’t you?” Tanya said candidly.
“Oh yeah! I do, actually”, Azhar said smiling, remembering Tanya’s wrath that night.
Nyle smiled. He had a constant smile plastered to his face that looked disingenuous and cheap. He also stared at Tanya more than what would be considered polite. As Azhar stood there wondering if he should sucker punch him for shamelessly ogling Tanya, Tanya said with a higher-pitched voice than usual,
“Actually, Azhar, Nyle is here to pick me up. We were going to check an exhibition out”.
Huh? Pick her up? Exhibition? He didn’t quite get it.
“Okay, bye” she said, almost apologetically.
Nyle triumphantly looked at Azhar, fell in step behind Tanya and together, they walked towards the parking lot that was reserved for the hospital staff.
He was stunned into silence for many minutes. He watched after them, getting a strong urge to punch the life out of that excuse for a man. He felt his heart hammering out of his chest. He called his friend at work and said shortly,
“I’m not coming back. I feel sick. I’ll see you tomorrow”.
The rest of his day was a bust. He aimlessly drove around and tried to distract himself with music and more food. Nothing worked.
There was pressure in his chest and the occasional palpitation about the future.
What the hell was Nyle doing picking up Tanya for an exhibition?
He wanted to call her but was afraid to seem eager or intrusive.
So he swallowed his worry and the fear of losing her and decided to work on something concrete.
If Ami didn’t talk to her mom then his match with Tanya could never happen.
He went back home and noticed a car parked in front of their house. It was Maha’s parents’ car. Even though the last thing he wanted was to see guests, he was momentarily happy at the distraction. Maha’s parents were very nice working people and had many stories to tell and were actually great people to talk to.
He wondered why they didn’t have much of a relationship with Bilal. They were all always awkward and weird around each other.
He walked in and realized that they were sitting in the living room. He washed his face hurriedly in the powder room, marveled for a second at how tan he had gotten hence more good looking and complimenting himself came to the living room.
This room needs a makeover, he thought while critically appraising the room.
He sometimes wondered whose taste reflected in the furniture and decor of this house. Ami didn’t have bad taste per se. She was actually a pretty sound person aesthetically and it showed in her choice of flowers and plants. So who furnished this house? Abu didn’t seem the type to spare any tender thoughts to what a home should look like.
He looked at disgust at the green sofas, the purple carpet and the brown curtains. There was an assortment of ornaments on the end tables and the thing that they called a coffee table was just as much of an atrocity. He felt like throwing up each time he walked in here.
He looked around at the peeling paint on the walls and the shoddy job that someone had done at mounting their wall fixtures of lights and ceiling fan. It all looked like a badly put together circus.
He shook his head. The misery that dripped from the walls of this house was downright depressing.
“Assalam O Alaikum, Aunty and Uncle! Have you brought Maha back?” He asked brightly. Even though Maha didn’t talk much she was a nice addition to the family. She was also closer to Azhar since he never insulted her or rebuked her over minor things.
“Yes. Maha missed everyone so much”.
Maha was sitting there, now visibly pregnant and basking in the attention that she was getting.
Nighat Afshan was stoic. She hadn’t planned on welcoming a baby so soon after they had gotten married. Sometimes she lamented Bilal’s stupidity. Who knew how long this girl was meant to be with him? Why impregnate her and take a liability on? What if she didn’t fit the family and needed to be divorced? Bilal was really her stupidest son.
“Nighat!” Maha’s mom started with a wary expression as she was aware of how twisted Nighat was, “I was wondering if Maha could go baby shopping with me in a few days? I wanted her to shop now but we went to many stores and there wasn’t anything that we liked. And she had to come back so we couldn’t look anymore”.
Nighat took a sharp breath. First of all, she didn’t like Maha or her mother. Even if they were the best people on earth she wouldn’t have liked them. She had brought Maha to do her bidding but here she was, pregnant like a beached whale and hoping to lay claim on Bilal. Nighat laughed at the stupid girl. Didn’t she know that her husband was madly in love with someone else and by the looks of it, still was?
“She didn’t have to come back. She could’ve stayed with you and completed her shopping”, Nighat said mildly.
Maha, who had found her voice and never backed down anymore, said sharply,
“This is my home and I wanted to come back to my home. And if I have to shop I can go from here. My husband needs me”.
Maha’s mom was quiet. Her dad purposely started checking his cell phone. Azhar however was a little taken aback. Nighat wasn’t used to being spoken like that and it showed in her face that was becoming blotchy.
“I never said this isn’t your home. If you consider it your home, then it must be. As far as Bilal goes, he doesn’t NEED you. He wants you hopefully but he doesn’t need you. He has his parents and his brothers. He had a family before you and he will have a family…..” She stopped abruptly.
Azhar was quiet. One more time in his life he could see that his mother was a fighter and a pretty good one at that. She had taken Maha’s insolence in stride but hadn’t stepped back. He respected her strength and power but sometimes, she used it unjustly. Like right now. She was using it against a hormonal woman who was usually mellow and subservient.
“What were you going to say? You can finish your sentence”, Maha said belligerently.
Nighat was calm. She had no time for fools and this girl was worse than a fool. She was a fool that had false faith in her courage to speak down to her.
“Maha! I would advise you to tone it down. Especially around me. I’m an old school woman and never spoke like this to anyone, much less my mother-in-law. I’m not Bilal who will put up with your temper because he’s waiting for it to become cute someday. I’m mentioning it now against my better judgment because your parents are sitting here that you’re not a particularly pleasant girl”.
If she had intended it to lure Maha into an argument, she had made a critical error in judgement. Maha was smarter than that. She immediately fell silent and her parents finally looked up,
“I’m sorry, Nighat”, Maha’s mother said, “Please forgive Maha. Sometimes kids don’t know what comes out of their mouth”.
“It’s okay”. Nighat said dismissively.
“Maha! Apologize now”, her mother commanded.
Apologize now? Where had he heard those words. He tried to shake the images but there were too many to shake off. They went out of focus and then in vulnerable moments came back to haunt him.
Ami towering over Bilal, Bilal walking back into a corner and finally falling, Ami raising a thick wooden stick and bringing it down on him repeatedly, demanding an apology that he wouldn’t give. Bilal’s screams brought Azhar out of his room and he took the stick out of Ami’s hands and took his six year old brother in his arms, sobbing and trembling, while Ami made sure they didn’t get their meals for a full day for having the gall to object to physical violence.
“Maha doesn’t have to apologize”, Azhar’s voice tore through the silence.
Nighat looked at him. Always the man! Always the protector of weaklings. How she hated the girl who had taken his heart in her hands. How proud she was of him for forfeiting all chance at ever having Nighat go ask for that girl’s hand by openly opposing her in present company.
Azhar was fearless, like her! He was brave and knew how to scrap his way through like her. He was also stupid to some extent, like that stupid brother of his. How she was desperately waited for the day that the two brothers found out about their love for Tanya Tariq. How she’d be in good graces with Azhar. Bilal! He will be cast aside with his good-for-nothing wife and child.
“You spoke later than I thought you would, my son! Thanks for humiliating me again”.
“No one is humiliating you”, he said smoothly, so dangerously like her in how he could be oblivious to others, “Maha doesn’t have to apologize. She said one thing. You said worse. Some might suggest that you should apologize”.
“But I don’t apologize, son! Surely you know that. I don’t allow myself to flow so far out in my emotions that I disregard other people and offend them and then have to apologize. I’m always very careful about that”.
“Oh we know that. We know you don’t apologize”, Azhar laughed, his shrill, grating laugh that was usually a sign of intense anger and malice, “Even the dirt on my shoe knows that”.
Everyone was quiet. It became thick and uncomfortable. Maha’s parents were looking white and Maha looked a little happier, grateful even.
After many minutes of awkward silence, Maha’s parents left. Nighat didn’t say goodbye.
Azhar knew he had ruined any chances of speaking with his mother about Tanya that day. He was sulking in his room when he heard Bilal come in.
He grabbed him even before he came inside and said pleadingly,
“Please come with me to dinner at our joint. I can’t be in this house for a second more. I know Maha just came today and you want to see her but I really can’t stay here for longer without blowing up on someone”.
“Okay, okay, man! You’re scaring me”, Bilal said, alarmed.
“I’ll tell you everything on the way. Drive!” He tossed his car keys to Bilal who deftly caught them and together the brothers went to their favorite place.
Sitting at the roadside restaurant, eating chicken tikka and paratha, Azhar filled in Bilal about his altercation with their mother.
“And all of this happened in front of Maha’s parents?” Bilal said, eyes wide in awe at his brother’s infinitesimal courage.
“Yes, man, that’s the worst part. I got so wrapped up in how she was bullying Maha that I couldn’t stand it and now you know, for another few days my thing with Tanya goes on the back burner”.
Bilal stung at the mention of Tanya but kept himself composed. He had however something more urgent to talk to his brother about.
“Azhar! Can I ask you something?”
“Sure”, Azhar said, embroiled in his own problems.
“How innocent do you think Maha is?”
“Huh? I don’t know, man, she’s your wife. I just saw Ami doing to her what she did to us and I couldn’t take it…..”
Bilal raised his hand,
“Listen to me. And take my word for it because like you said, she’s my wife”.
Azhar could sense something coming on that they all could sense but were too chicken to acknowledge.
Bilal continued unfeelingly,
“Maha isn’t a fawn in the woods. She’s a very smart woman. She is, in fact, Ami’s match and I have seen her instigating many a time. I’m saying this because I don’t want you to fight Maha’s battles and fall from favor with Ami. Maha is fully capable of fighting her battles and holding her own. She isn’t yours or mine to save. Trust me, she’d eat you and me and spit us out in five seconds flat”.
Surprise wasn’t a feeling to describe what Azhar felt. He was shocked beyond measure. He knew Bilal and Maha weren’t very close but they were having a baby and had been man and wife for almost a year. Didn’t they have any feelings for each other?
“But enough about me”, Bilal said, always fearing that he had said too much about his married life, “What’s going on with your work?”
Which reminded Azhar,
“We have to act fast, Billu! Tanya had a date today.”
“Oh really?” He said casually, trying to sound reasonably interested.
“Yes, this clown who kinda works with us took her out to an exhibition”.
“And she went?”
They sat silent. Azhar wondering what his next move should be. Bilal thanking the stars that Tanya might be taken by someone else and it would save all the embarrassment that would come with the confession that she was the girl he never fought for or stood up for.
“How was your date?” He asked, trying to make it sound like another question and cursing her and Nyle inside.
“It was okay”, she texted back, not wanting to discuss it with anyone.
“I’m glad it was okay”, he said, seething inside.
Was it a date? She wondered. For starters, because she had actually dated someone she kinda knew how first dates normally went if the two were into each other. And now she also knew how first dates went when the two weren’t into each other.
Nyle must be interesting to other people but to her he wasn’t the knight in shining armor who sweeps women off their feet. He was nervous to the point where she couldn’t address him without him turning several shades of purple, was tripping over his words all the time and was a bad driver.
When they finally reached the exhibition, he had no idea what they were doing there. He just wasn’t the type of man who could hold her interest. Her mind drifted to Bilal. He could hold her attention effortlessly. Even by just quietly sitting there he could hold it. He never had to work hard to be likable.
But Bilal is Bilal, the heart said.
And he’s no more, the mind said.
But don’t just sell yourself short and date this guy who’s a clown, her heart said.
He might be a clown but he’s safe, the mind reminded her.
But why do I need safe? The heart reasoned.
Because he’s just always going to be so in awe of you that won’t likely realize that you belong to someone else.
“Tanya!” She looked at him blankly. God knows how long he had been trying to get her attention.
“Nyle! Would it be terribly rude if I took a rain check on the dinner? Really I have a bad headache”.
“Oh”, his face fell comically. Then,
“We can eat now. Earlier than we had planned”.
“No. I’ll throw up if I put anything in the my mouth. I’m really dizzy”, she almost pleaded.
“Can I drop you?”
“Erm….. well may be to the hospital because my car is parked there”.
“Why there? I’ll drop you off at your place and bring you over in the morning also,” then he added shyly, “I’m your neighbor too in case you haven’t noticed”.
No I haven’t noticed, she thought. When you have a thousand angels cursing you all the time you don’t notice inconsequential people around you.
“I know that. And thanks”. She smiled.
She took out her phone in the car and noticed about twenty texts from Azhar.
“Are you done?”
“Can I talk to you?”
“Bilal and I are going to Boat Basin. Wanna come with us?”
“Can you call me when you get back?”
“That Nyle guy gives me the creeps”.
“May be I should eat the burger at the cafeteria tomorrow”.
And on and on it went.
Nyle looked over at her.
“I had a great time”, he said pleasantly.
We didn’t talk at all, she thought.
“I’m glad about that”, ever the polite girl.
“Can we do this again, as soon as possible?” He was groveling.
She was immediately turned off.
“Sure”, she said, and then decided to adopt her resting bitch face.
He was either scared or had run out of words because he didn’t even try to break the silence for the next twenty minutes.
She got off as soon as the car stopped in front of her house. It was after a little over eighteen months that a man had dropped her off in front of her house. Somehow she wanted this moment to prolong. So she could savor it, cherish it and love it some more.
She stood in front of the gates to her house and contemplated going in versus going for a walk. She turned around to go for a walk and saw Nyle still standing with the engine running, hoping to see her off inside, an expectant expression on his chubby face with round eyes.
Cursing him under her breath she opened the gate and went in.
She saw her mother sitting in the garden, drinking her evening tea.
“Hi honey”, Asma waved merrily, “Back already?”
“Yup. He had some work to do”, she lied.
“That’s a shame”, her mother sympathized.
“Actually worked out for me”, she shrugged, ” he was so boring”.
Asma surveyed her from above the rim of the cup. She could not deny the transformation that she had undergone since the breakup. She had lost her laugh, her smile, her wit. She had been easier to irk, faster to anger. She normally looked very acclimated but in times of stress, Asma saw an animal in Tanya’s eyes, restless for release.
She ventured cautiously,
“Tanya! We never talked about it because of course….but how was Bilal? You spent a good amount of time with him. What was he like? Tell me about him.”
The evening had started to turn into dusk. There was a flock of birds coming back to their nests. The screeching and chirping was enough to make anyone crazy but for some reason there was beauty in the noise.
She looked at her mom and felt sorry for everyone who had had to get involved with her failed love story. Even Bilal. He got involved with her and got burned. And now Azhar was trying it.
There was a time when Bilal’s name evoked feelings and tears. Now it just reminded of the slow death that she had coming for her.
“Mama”, she smiled and went to her mother to sit next to her, “I can’t describe him. Can you describe the color of the wind or the flavor of water? Or can you tell what happiness tastes like? Or what love smells like? I can’t describe him or explain him. Also describing him won’t be right because no words can do justice to him. But if you want to know what he meant to me then that’s simple! Have you ever seen your soul? May be you have. You and Papa loved each other beyond reason. So you can get it may be. He was my soul. So when I fought with you for him I didn’t fight to get a man I loved. I fought to get my soul. This is why I fought. Because I knew that if I didn’t get him, there will be an empty shell that will scare every man who came close to it”.
“Azhar! Why were you sending so many texts?”
“Because I didn’t know what happened. One minute you were eating a samosa with me. And the next minute you fled to a hot date”.
“So are you upset about me going on a date with Nyle?”
“No! If I knew that you’d be on a date with someone and already had lunch plans I would’ve eaten McDonald’s. I really don’t like those samosas”.
“Really? But you eat so many everyday”.
“I don’t like to say that I hate them. You love them so much”.
“Oh God! You’re kinda stupid to be so cautious around me”.
“I am stupid. I’m realizing everyday that there’s something very stupid about me”.
“Sorry. You’re not stupid. I just find it weird that you’d be eating those samosas for a year when you hate them so much. You don’t have to have them anymore. I’ll go for lunch myself”.
“No. I can eat them. I actually love them. Please be my lunch buddy forever”.
Forever? Someone broke a glass ornament around her. There were tiny shards looking up at her and asking to be fixed. She peered closer at them. They were pieces of a once happy heart that believed in stories that promised eternal love.
She sighed. Saying no to Azhar was fast becoming hard. She loved him like the older sibling that she had never had. Someone she could trust. Someone who cared enough to eat the same thing for a year because he wanted the pleasure of her company. Someone who may be loved her, not knowing that she once belonged to the man whom he called his biggest reason to live.
“All of a sudden you love them?”
“Yes I do. Hey I needed to ask you something”.
“Your house job is finishing. Where are you headed next?”
“Actually, I have a few options so I’m just thinking about them”.
“I’m going to Jinnah Hospital. Why don’t you come over there? We will work together again”.
“I am actually thinking of going into residency training”.
“Yes. There’s just that one”.
He felt his heart sinking. He turned off his phone. Suddenly the walls were closing in on him and he had trouble breathing. He went to get a glass of water. It was 2 in the morning and on his way to the kitchen he bumped into Hashir, lying on the couch, trying to sleep.
“What are you doing here?” He was worried.
“Nothing! Trying to sleep. Sleeping in the room next to Bilal’s isn’t easy . They’re always fighting”.
Azhar sighed. He had been seeing a side of Maha that was not just unsavory, it was also disingenuous and dishonest. She routinely disrespected Bilal and threw tantrums over minor things. The smartest thing was that she had made a place for herself in Ami’s good graces back again. She was also due in a few months so every meltdown that she had was chalked up to the hormones.
He had to do something about it. All of it. Bilal needed help. Someone needed to rescue him from another woman trampling him over. Ami had damaged him for life. Maha was supposed to turn it all around.
He stood in the family room, poring over this problem for many minutes and then returned to his room, all thoughts of water and Tanya and USA forgotten.
What a sad family, he looked around the table and wondered why Maha’s presence had started to weigh their family down even more. Abu was quietly eating and had recently taken to eating most meals in his room.
Azhar felt no kinship with him. He was the wind beneath Ami’s wings and an equal partner in all the aristocracy that this family was known for.
“Maha! Can you fix a shirt for me? The button came off last night”. Bilal said, warily looking at his wife, aware that he had tried to bell the cat.
“You can wear something else”, she snapped.
“Okay. I was just asking because it’s a brand new shirt and the button has come undone. I wanted to wear it but can wait for you to fix it”. He was always meek and sheepish in front of her.
“Don’t hold your breath”, she replied rudely.
What Azhar found astounding was that she didn’t care who was listening into her rudeness. She had no respect for anyone. Ami came to sit at the table a few minutes later and asked Aman,
“Aman! Did you tell Azhar you need help with your math test?”
“Azhar is never home”, Aman sulked.
“I’m home now. Why are you always looking for me when I’m not home?” Azhar retaliated, annoyed at the implication that he didn’t spend enough time at home.
“I have to go for my volleyball practice”, Aman who was an excellent excuse maker when it came to studies, immediately created another excellent one, “And moreover, Bilal can help me. Azhar yells more than he actually teaches”.
“I think you all should stop burdening Bilal with so much work”, Maha’s voice rose from the chaos and everyone fell silent, “We will be parents soon so may be people who have nothing else to do except eat and drive around should help you”.
Azhar knew it was directed at him. He looked at Ami. She was silently eating.
Bilal had straightened up slowly.
“You’re a miserable woman”, he said, getting up from the table and wiping his hands on a kitchen towel, “You are a waste of a human. You can’t talk, care or love. You’re impossible to live with and you still expect people to cater to you. I’ve never seen anyone as insufferable as you are. God knows what sins I have committed that you’re my punishment”.
Maha sprang up viciously, pregnant belly and all. This was perfect. The fight that she had wanted to have so badly outside the room was finally getting started. She had to tell everyone how he wasn’t into her or their baby.
“Of course you’d say that”, she shrieked, “For a man who has to be begged every night to give his wife some attention, of course you’d say that. I’m your punishment? Wow! I’m giving you a child that you don’t even want. You are my punishment. I’m carrying someone’s child and that man doesn’t even want me”.
Bilal turned to leave but then turned around and looked at his mother,
“This is your choice? This is who you chose for me? Shameful! Everything, from how she talks to how she eats, repulses me. No wonder you liked her. Another woman who sucks the air out of the room”.
He was calm. Dangerously, maddeningly calm. He was her happiest child, always ready with a smile, always willing to help, always available. She looked at him, now a man defeated and forced to bow to time and stronger people.
She felt possessive of him, as she always did about her kids, not in a maternal way but almost like she owned them. She fumed at Maha’s insolence and the pain in her son’s eyes.
But Maha was a formidable opponent. She wasn’t someone who was easy to manipulate. She wasn’t as suggestible as she liked people to believe. And Bilal wasn’t hers to save.
Also, she couldn’t ignore Bilal’s hostility towards her own self. Did he just say that she sucked the air out of a room too?
Finally Azhar broke the silence, before Nighat Afshan could object to Bilal’s disrespect ,
“Maha! If I knew that my spouse didn’t want me, I wouldn’t be spending any time with them whatsoever. I would go back to where I came from. Moreover, no one talks to Bilal like that in his own home”.
“So are you trying to say that this isn’t my home?” Maha started belligerently.
“I don’t know”, he said, nonchalantly, truly his mother’s son when it came to exacting any offense to his dearest brother, “I don’t know if I have said that. I just want you to watch yourself when conducting yourself the way you have today, in the future. Don’t think Bilal can be bullied or abused. We hear your yelling from your room all the time anyway. We don’t need to hear it on the dining table”.
Nighat Afshan smirked. Not for nothing was Azhar her favorite. He was her replica, in mind and in body.
As soon as she finished eating, Azhar followed her to her room.
“Ami! When can you go to talk to Tanya’s mom?”
She realized that he had stopped using any preambles before he delved into it these days.
“Please stop harassing me. I won’t go. I have told you”.
“Then how am I going to marry her? I can’t ask her, Ami! She won’t agree to it”.
“Why” she said, exasperated at his persuasion, “would anyone want to marry a girl who won’t agree to his proposal?”
“She’s a very traditional girl, Ami and she has had a failed relationship. She was in love with someone and their family didn’t agree. Don’t you think that would make anyone a little gunshy?” He said, trying to appeal to his mother’s better nature.
“A lot of paradoxical statements there, Azhar! She’s traditional but has been in a relationship before. She was in love with someone and now is gun shy? Which one is it? Do you expect me to relent with all the information you’re giving me? Frankly, all this extra news isn’t making me have any warm and fuzzies for this girl”.
“Ami! Everyone has a past”.
“Do you have a past?” Her hazel eyes bored into his gray ones.
Do I have a past? You know I have a past, Ami. A past that only you know. And Bilal has one too. Of abuse, neglect, degradation and insult. And you have a past too, Ami. A past that transformed you. And made you worse. We all have a past. It’s just that our pasts are ugly whereas Tanya’s is innocent and actually a testament to how she can love and be someone’s. You and I stifle the screams of our past, buried in the pits of this home, where someone has always watched another being subjugated and enslaved.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Guess I’m unlucky to have never loved someone until my thirties to really have a past”.
“You know, son”, she said, settling in her recliner and gazing at the clear blue sky, “we say every saint has a past and every sinner has a future but guess who said that? Probably a sinner. This girl, Tanya, sounds like she has quite the colorful past”.
“Do you think loving someone is a sin, Ami?”
“I wouldn’t know, my son. I didn’t love strange men. I have never known women who besot men with their beguiling femininity. I’ve lived a straightforward life and besides my husband , I’ve never called anyone my man”.
“Your experiences are not moral standards. They’re your experiences and might I say, limited at that? She isn’t a woman of your generation. So she shouldn’t be expected to follow the compass that you have for chastity”.
I’m a fool, she thought angrily, I should’ve accepted her for Bilal. This wouldn’t have come to this today. But it’s okay! No one can defeat me. One wrong move won’t define my whole life.
“Is she chaste, Azhar?” She asked softly.
“Yes. You just have to look at her to know that”.
“A woman’s chastity”, she said, reliving all the times her husband suspected her innocence, “is a delicate thing. Some might argue that chaste women don’t have premarital affairs”.
“Some might argue that chaste women wouldn’t judge other women but here we are”. He said, as arrogant as her, as blunt and as rude when angry.
“Are you saying I’m not chaste?”
He thought of his childhood. His mother was a reserved woman of little charm. She disliked everyone. Even her own family. She had an opinion of everyone. Her brothers left her and then her sisters left her too. She remained alone. But nothing changed her. She remained the authoritarian dictator that she was. She didn’t allow for any arguments, negotiations or disputes.
“I don’t know if you are, Ami. You’re my mother. I judge you on your parenting. I can’t judge you on your chastity”.
“Okay. You can’t judge me, a woman who is an old fool to you, but you can surely judge the excellent specimen that made your brother’s wife. Do you think she’s chaste for speaking to your brother like that? Is that morality? ”
“She can speak to Bilal any which way she likes. They’re man and wife. And I can tell her not to speak like that because we are brothers. At the end of the day we communicated and that’s important. May be that’s your problem. You think that bilateral communication challenges your status as the matriarch of this family. But I don’t accept you as the matriarch. I have never looked up to you, liked you and have only loved your rarely seen human side. So I’ll take Maha over you any day. I’ve warned you before that your extremely high opinion of yourself will land you in big trouble some day”.
She listened quietly. Each word went like a dagger through her heart. He was her first born and the only one who had been there. He had saved her without knowing it. Was he saying that she didn’t save him? But she loved him with an intensity that not many women could lay claim to. He was truly her blood. Then why did he have so much poison for her?
“Do you expect me to assist you in this knowing how you feel about me?”
“Yes?” She asked, slightly amused.
“I have no recourse. You’re my only hope. I’ll forever be indebted to you, Ami! I will forgive you for all you did to Bilal and I”.
You’ll forgive me? Wow! So not so much like me after all, huh? A little conniving side of you that is like your father’s! You’ll forgive me? The woman who has no happy memories when it comes to her so-called family. Ask your father how forgiveness is so hard for me to give!
She turned to look at him. Her favorite who had unmistakeable signs of Sabir Hussain on him too. She usually chose to ignore them but they were there. Too many to overlook. To dark to fade.
“I have nothing to ask forgiveness for. You like to remember things that never happened to Bilal and they have become the basis of your animosity towards me. But I did nothing to him”.
“You did nothing to him?” He growled.
The room had gotten darker as the sun had moved away from the window. There were long shadows on the walls. A thin ray of light had broken through from somewhere and had caused the gloom to deepen.
“I don’t remember it”.
She could hear the familiar animalistic rage in his voice. It had been a while since she had had to face this side of his. She was scared of this side. This was the side of him that was so sinisterly like his father. Raw, cruel and destructive.
He was towering over her and Nighat had flash backs of her short husband towering over her, as she whimpered like a dog on the floor, an object of torture like a belt or a wooden stick or a shoe in his hand, threatening her to admit to sins she had never committed, her denial of his accusations driving him into a frenzy and then blood everywhere.
She was shocked back by her tall son looming over her recliner, his hands reaching out, until he finally grabbed her shoulders and lifted her effortlessly off the recliner with a jerk.
“Don’t pretend with me”, he hissed, his mouth close to her ear, his breath fogging her vision, “Do not pretend. You know it and I know it. This house has snakes living in it. Slithering across the floor. Lacing our lives with their venom. Digging into our flesh when we are not looking. This house has many secrets that the snakes know of. And because we don’t want people to know how sick we are, we feed the snakes our life and our light. We can’t let anyone know what the snakes threaten to tell them, Ami! You have not forgotten what happened to Bilal. You pretend that you have. Like I pretend. Like Bilal pretends. You didn’t protect him. You let the snakes take him in exchange for you. You saved yourself. You didn’t save him. I saved him. And as God as my witness, I will always protect him and if he needs saving again, I will save him”.
She trembled in fright. Azhar had that evil glint in his eye that made her regret ever having kids with her abominable husband and therefore making four more Sabir Hussains. But she was stronger than he thought she was. She was stronger than any of them.
“Let me go, son”, she said, just as effortlessly shrugging herself off his grip as he had jerked her off the chair, “I don’t pretend. That’s the one thing I refuse to do. I don’t pretend. I don’t pretend amnesia. I don’t pretend forgiveness. I remember everything. And there are things that only I remember. Too many to count. Too horrendous to recount. You may leave now”.
“Do you think that if you continue on like this with Ami she’ll work with you?”
Bilal said wearily after Azhar recounted his conversation with their mother.
They were sitting at SeaView, watching the waves rise up and then flatten out under the scorching sun.
Azhar looked defeated. He had been asking her for weeks and she hadn’t budged. Meanwhile Tanya was dating people.
Not people, he reminded himself, just that one with Nyle.
I can’t risk it, he thought miserably.
He watched as vendors of various street foods waited by the shore, silently waiting to sell their cheap merchandise.
He wondered why anyone would go to the USA when they could live in Karachi. Look at this city! He scanned the area quickly for any faults and found none. Look at Karachi! Beats any place in the world for me.
And how could he leave Bilal! He couldn’t leave him. Bilal was his life. They had been grown men when they had been sharing a room. They were inseparable. He would choke on life if someone took Bilal from him. Who would he talk to, eat with and fight with? There was no one who could be Bilal. Not even Tanya.
He sighed and then held his breath for a few minutes trying to follow some mindfulness techniques that he had learned in his work out lessons. Bilal slapped his back.
“Don’t be an idiot, ass hole! What are you doing? Sighing like a fallen lover! How about this? You talked for my girlfriend. I’ll talk to Ami for yours”.
“That’s just so reassuring”, Azhar said rolling his eyes, “Kill all prospects for me. She will have a philosophical difference with all of it even more if you get involved”.
“Don’t worry! You’re really wound up. I’ll be nice and my usual groveling self. She likes people who act like they’re on her payroll”.
Azhar contemplated throwing Bilal in the mix. Bilal was almost a trigger for their mother. She had a dislike for him that she didn’t show often but he had seen it in how she had always made him second tier son. She didn’t care that Maha, who had been so much in her favor, could be nicer to Bilal. She actually egged on Maha.
No, he decided, Bilal getting involved is dangerous for both of us. She’ll hate me for sending her least favorite person to her. And she’ll hate him for being my mouthpiece.
Abu! He decided. He’s the one who should help me. After all he has some responsibility towards our happiness also. I’ll ask him.
“I’ll ask Abu.”
“Abu?” Bilal asked with a mix of incredulous hilarity and unequivocal surprise.
“Yes. Abu”, Azhar said, already putting his argument together to present it to Abu.
“Yes, really! What’s wrong with that?”
Bilal rolled on the floor laughing. He laughed until his sides hurt, his eyes teared up and his lungs emptied of all air.
“Abu is your safety blanket? He’s your back up plan? I sometimes want to stop thinking you’re smart. You’re an idiot, Azhar, really Abu?”
“Okay” Azhar started, pragmatic as ever, “I know he’s a dumb choice but what other options do I have? She won’t listen to you. Hashir and Aman? Forget it! Who’s left?”
“I’m left, man, I’m left”, Bilal screamed. “I’m gonna be the most sniveling son that was ever born. Trust me! You’re in good hands with me. Abu? He doesn’t know our names in the right order. Unless someone is talking about a business contract, Abu doesn’t get it. All he cares about his how much, how many, when and where. He is no good. Let me help you, man. Trust me!”
“I trust you, Billu! But Ami will chew you out”.
“I don’t care. Trust me, I’m the only one who can convince her”.
“How?” Azhar was intrigued. “What are you going to say?”
“Leave that to me, kiddo! I’ll make Tanya yours even if it kills me”.
“No thank you”, Azhar said, running his hand through his dark hair, “Tanya isn’t worth you. No one is worth you”.
“Aww! Ajji loves me”, Bilal tried to embarrass him by cuddling with him.
“Get off of me. Go hug your wife”, Azhar pushed him away, laughing.
Bilal’s mood changed. Like it always did. A darkness came over the moment.
“Listen”, Azhar said, taking the opportunity, “Don’t ruin your life by missing your ex all the time. Enjoy Maha. She’s your wife. Soon to be your baby’s mother”.
He nodded, desperately aching to tell his brother of their loveless marriage and how a baby wouldn’t be able to spice anything up.
“I’ll try”, he finally smiled, “I hope I can make Maha happy”.
Azhar felt a pang. Bilal had always been a quiet child. Then had gotten into his twenties and become outgoing and a party animal. Now he had quieted down again. He missed his boisterous, loud days.
He got flashbacks sometimes. Of Bilal waking up at night and asking Ami if he could sleep with her. Ami refusing. Then Bilal crawling into her bed anyway. Then Ami locking him up in a room that was pitch black. Azhar cried and asked for her to release Bilal. She wouldn’t listen. Then Azhar would sit at the door, talking to Bilal through the door the whole night, figuring out ways to get the keys without Ami knowing.
He stole a glance at his younger brother surreptitiously. In a way Bilal hadn’t grown up. He was still a child, navigating the dark as best as he could. He would’ve been okay if he had gotten the love of his life. And he could still be okay if Maha talked to him through the door and showed him where the key was.
She was sitting in her lawn chair, watching the birds leave their nests, envying freedom and independence.
It was still early morning, about eight o’clock. The sun hadn’t come up completely and there was a mist that had decided to hang low and late on this summer morning. She liked this time. She never prayed but had never missed the sun rising or setting. The one thing that gave her pleasure without taking anything from her was nature. Nature made up for life.
She watched him come closer and noticed that his weight had fluctuated a lot in the last one year. He had gotten thin around his wedding but had packed even more pounds since then.
She felt sorry for him. Why couldn’t he be a little like his older brother? Much as she detested Azhar mentioning the girl’s name all the time, that was exactly the quality that endeared him. He was tenacious and strong. He had a willful resilience. He didn’t need anyone. People needed him.
“Sleep as much as you can”, she said pleasantly, “Once the baby is here, you won’t get a lot of sleep”.
He laughed lightly. He wanted to say that the baby couldn’t be worse than the other horrors that he had had to face but kept quiet .
“Ami! Can we talk about Azhar?”
“We have to. This is the one thing that I can’t take a no for”.
He made himself comfortable in another lawn chair and put his feet up on the table.
She watched him with disgust. Somehow the breakup hadn’t had the effect that she had imagined. He was supposed to become forlorn and dejected. Instead he had become distant and vain. He rarely spoke and had reverted to many old habits that she had been grateful that he had left in the dust of his childhood.
But there was something in him that was alarming. His eyes were constantly red from sleeplessness. He had started to speak in Sabir’s lingo and all he talked about at the dinner table was business and money. Two things that he previously had an aversion to.
He had never taken much to that dumb girl, his wife. That was one thing that she was actually proud of when it came to Bilal. She was amazed at how easily he had given up Tanya and now how easy for him it was to ignore Maha. He really was a man. He disposed of women.
Azhar had disappointed her. He had been acting like a fool and expected her to join ranks with him too in the constant worship of that meaningless girl. He hadn’t spoken to her about anything but Tania Tariq for the last several months.
But he is a persistent boy with conviction, she thought with a self-satisfied smile. Bilal is stupid, she thought, impulsive. Rises like an over enthusiastic wave and then settles as soon as it has travelled a few feet and can’t compete with bigger waves.
“Before you start with me, Bilal, you know the girl your brother is lusting after, right?”
She thinks I didn’t come prepared, he thought sardonically, I’ve come prepared and I know you’ll try to provoke me. But nothing can come between me and Azhar. Not even Tanya.
“Tanya?” He said casually, “Yup I know. Doesn’t really matter to me”.
“Doesn’t it? Son! I know you and your brother think that I’m as old as I am just because I lived that long but I lived and breathed the world, son. I lived it and I breathed it and that’s how I got old”.
“You read too much into my relationship with Tanya. Really it was a good one but it’s not like I couldn’t date someone else just as good after her. For someone who has lived and breathed as much as you say, you act very stupid”.
He had learned to speak like Sabir too. He had become wary of her, she could tell. She had lost her trust with him.
“Regardless of what you think of me, I can’t allow Azhar to marry that wretch. She can’t take another one of my sons from me”.
“But she didn’t take me from you. And she won’t take Azhar either. She’ll be his wife. You’re our mother. You’ll always be our mother”. He said, continuing to look away from her.
He was a sweet boy, she thought with some sadness, look what a woman did to him. He has hardened, pining for his love. He has changed. Probably forever.
“Bilal!” She said imploringly. He looked at her. He used to have the softest brown eyes. Somehow the whites had widened in there since Tanya left.
“I’m not a bad person for watching out for my children. Why did you and now Azhar think I’m the villain?”
She saw his face getting clouded over by pain and angst.
“I don’t think you’re the villain”, he said smoothly, ” You did what you felt was right”.
Relieved, she pursued,
“So why isn’t it right now? It’s the same woman. It’s the same problem. Everything’s the same. How am I wrong now?”
How are you wrong now? He mused. You were actually wrong before too. But because you came after a weak person no one told you that you were.
“Azhar wants to marry her. She is a great girl…..”
“You would know”, she interrupted him.
I would know, Ami, like you would know if you lost a piece of your heart and bled through your soul.
“You don’t seem to like Tanya on impulse. I’m not criticizing you but want to ask if there is something that Azhar and I both don’t know about her that you do. You certainly seem to have very strong opinions about her”.
“Wouldn’t you have a strong opinion about someone if they lured your sons into her trap? The same girl? What are the chances, Bilal? What are the chances? How embarrassing that she has shamelessly pursued your brother when she was already rejected by you?”
He listened quietly. Time had been the worst teacher. And the best. He had learned to take people’s words apart from their actions and then put them together to see if they made sense. This wisdom had come at a price. He had had to sell his soul to the devil.
“First of all”, he cleared his throat, “she didn’t lure any of us. Second of all, what are the chances of what? That the same woman has won both of us? What are the chances of karma coming for you? Don’t worry about that. If karma is coming in the form of Tanya, then it’s good karma. No need to be scared. And finally, she didn’t pursue Azhar. Azhar is hoping to pursue her through us. She and I were in a relationship and loved each other. Azhar and Tanya don’t love each other so they make the perfect match. Two people who don’t madly, insanely love each other. Isn’t that the whole idea of marriage?”
Venom as he had never spewed dripped from his words. She knew he had changed but how did he change into Sabir? Why didn’t he change into Azhar?
“I think you make excellent points”, she tried to win this one by flattering him, “but I have a lovely girl, Nina, who is very interested in Azhar. They’ll make a beautiful couple”.
“I suggest you propose to Tanya for Azhar. It will be good for all of us”.
The sun had come out and threatened to get warmer. There was a faint fragrance of jasmine and roses around them. Birds had been circling over them and they could hear the morning bustle of school-going kids outside.
“I won’t agree to that, Bilal! I won’t agree to it for as long as I live”.
He wondered what made misery her favorite feeling. She had made him miserable for life and now insisted on doing that to Azhar. He couldn’t let that happen to Azhar. Fighting for himself was hard and embarrassing. Fighting for Azhar was his mission in life.
She stood up and went to a flower bed, newly planted and giving new buds.
He walked up to her slowly. She turned around face to face with her least favored son, so like her own father in appearance except he was tall like her. He was shorter than Azhar by a couple of inches but was still exceptionally tall and had he been smarter, he would’ve been just as attractive as Azhar too.
“I won’t speak about it again, Ami! Ask for Tanya from her mom. I won’t be having this conversation with you again. If you resist me, I won’t leave you until I win. And if you try to screw Azhar like you screwed me, I’ll take my brothers and leave this house forever. It will get lonely for you. And you’ll have to live with the man you hate with every fiber of your being. I’ll make sure of that. I’ll make sure that the only person you can call family is your husband”.
“You can’t do that”, she hissed.
“Pretty dirty move, huh?” He said, conniving like his father, “Something that you would do. Something that you have actually done. But it’s effective, I can tell you that. Isn’t this the same threat that convinced me to leave Tanya? It works, Ami! Like a charm. Every time. Like a charm”.