All’s Fair….Part 7

CHAPTER 61:

Nights had become sleepless again. She had sleepless nights in her youth, when she’d lay in bed hyper vigilant and stiff with fear, waiting for Sabir to pounce on her for minor things that he considered insults from her family.

She couldn’t shake off how Bilal had spoken to her. He was her sweet boy. The complacent one. The one with the give and the bend. How did he become a hideous man with dirty blackmailing ideas?

He hadn’t stood up to her for himself which was a trait that she had associated with his meek and cowardly personality. He was truly Sabir’s son. Weak, spineless, despicable. He was a colicky baby and grew up to be a clingy child. When he didn’t get her attention, he found Azhar. Disgusting!

But he had stood up for Azhar. Knowing full well that Azhar was in love with his ex. Selflessness isn’t a trait that cowards have. So was he not a coward?

Azhar had advocated for Bilal. Convincingly and without reserve. But not like Bilal had advocated for him. Bilal came out stronger. How did that happen?

She remembered Azhar, appealing to her softer side, in the same garden two years ago, pleading for her to help Bilal. She hadn’t relented. He had vowed to help Bilal until the end but Bilal had already made the decision. He could give up Tanya. He couldn’t give up his family .

But Bilal! He spoke like a man who had nothing to lose. When did he become so fearless? So did the loss of love affect him completely differently from how she thought it had? Instead of becoming weaker and meeker, he had become assertive and stronger.

Her head was hurting. She prided herself on having her finger on her sons’ pulse. Bilal had thrown her for a loop. It was unforeseen and she hadn’t been prepared for it.

May be Tanya was destined to be here. She was destined to be in this family. She was going to complete the trifecta. Bilal, Tanya and Azhar.

She had never been a religious woman but wanted to pray. She couldn’t remember how to. She needed some direction. Who am I kidding, she laughed at herself, Allah won’t take me back. I’ve sinned and covered sins.

She had to talk to someone. She had to speak with another man. Someone with brains. Someone not smitten by a woman. Someone who could think like her and get what she was thinking.

Suddenly she felt a calm come over. Why was she fretting? He’d be so disappointed to learn that she had felt threatened by a mere girl.

As she put her head on her pillow, next to her snoring husband, she physically relaxed.

Tomorrow I’ll go see him and discuss it with him. He’ll be upset that I’m telling him so late but he’ll understand.

She picked up her phone before sleeping and typed,

“Can I see you tomorrow?”

It was 4 in the morning.

Predictably, a minute later, her screen flashed,

“You don’t have to ask. I’ll be waiting”.

The only man who had never disappointed her. The only man who understood a woman’s work in keeping a family together. The only man who understood why she did what she did.

“Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow, Abu”.

CHAPTER 62:

“Hey! Hey! Why do you walk so fast, girlie? Seriously! Look at me panting. Please stop. Do you want me to get a heart attack?”

She laughed at him running comically towards her, talking at the same time, thinking that the resemblance with Bilal was uncanny.

“A software engineer getting his morning work out in and not making it! Headline for tomorrow”.

“Don’t make fun of lesser mortals. Aren’t you afraid of Allah punishing you?”

“No”, she said cheekily, “I’m one of His special ones”.

“For sure”, he said distractedly, noticing how lovely she was when in a lighter mood.

They started walking towards the surgical unit. People were scrambling to the back of the hospital where they were having their annual fundraising gala. Patients Welfare Association was a powerful patient advocate and their Bake Sale was phenomenally executed every year. Tanya was an active part of it and even though Azhar wasn’t a doctor, he had become just as indispensable as her due to his efforts to maximize blood donations and always campaigning for rare blood types.

He had so far collected many common blood type donors for various blood banks and was a regular donor himself.

“Let’s go to the bake sale for lunch. They have amazing food”. She said, going up the steps to Surgical-6.

He hesitated, then,

“Tanya! Don’t go to the USA”.

She stopped going up. She didn’t want to turn around. What is this? She thought. Bill didn’t stop me once. And he stops me? He does? But I want Bilal.

She recovered.

“I’m not going right now”.

“I know. But I don’t think you should go ever. I have some excellent points that I’d like to make over lunch”.

She smiled. Azhar’s candidness was so reminiscent of Bilal’s that it was hard to not enjoy his company as an extension of Bilal.

“I’d love to hear that argument”, she flashed a dazzling smile and went up the stairs.

They met four hours later at the bake sale.

“Wow! This is the bake sale? Your humble event?” He said, totally taken over by the carnival that he had stepped into.

Bake Sale is a student, house officer and resident run fundraiser for patients of Civil Hospital. It has huge patrons and a lot of philanthropists donate money to it. Many small businesses contribute also. Doctors and medical students participate in the setting up, decorating, collecting donations, inviting people, distributing brochures. This is that one time that everyone comes together. Even people who don’t work with the association bring stalls and get vendors to sponsor their stalls.

Who would’ve thought, he looked around mesmerized, what these doctors get up to? It’s a different world.

The sale is called a bake sale but all types of food items and other stalls are available.

For this particular Bake Sale, the association had gone all out.

There was a bingo corner and many people were hunched over trying to fill out bingo cards and every now and then there was a huge hurrah when someone won.

At the far end was a stage, raised ten feet from the ground, with huge banners in the background with Atif Aslam on them. People were busy setting up the stage still, tripping over singing paraphernalia and a hundred cords that crawled along the floor.

And then the food! There wasn’t one Karachi street food that wasn’t there. Bun Kebab, Chaat, Burgers of all kinds including the most delicious cheese burgers that you’d only get in a predominantly meat-eating country, Peshawari ice cream with Karachi’s indigenous flavors, corn on the cob, French fries, potato croquettes, Lassi, Falooda, and paan.

There was a lot of finger food that Karachi is so loved for. And so there were rows and rows of samosas, jalebis, popcorn, pickled fruit, caramelized nuts and ethnic biscuits. He couldn’t believe the aroma that wafted towards him. The magic of food!

He ran his eyes at amazement at the stalls, so flamboyantly decorated, all with similar slogans for better health access and healthcare, young people running the show.

He finally realized why it was called a bake sale when his eyes landed on the biggest show of confectionary that he had ever seen. The Bake Sale is a talent show of sorts. Of doctors’ baking and so there were stalls after stalls of home-baked goods that included original mithais of about twenty types, cakes, Danish pastries and about a hundred other types of pastries. Doctors, both male and female, flaunt their culinary talents and a slice of cake sells for what they sometimes make in a month. Charity is the whole theme. Philanthropy is the whole mission.

He marveled at how poor doctors spent carelessly at the food, intending for the money to reach their patients while enriching their gustatory experiences too. Doctors are a rare breed, he had realized that much. But they were eccentric too? He was awed.

The whole arena behind Civil Hospital was unrecognizable with balloons, buntings and portraits. He looked at Tanya who was watching him with an amused expression.

“May be software engineers think that doctors don’t know how to bring it. But we do”.

She hardly ever spoke slang. Why was everything so different today? This place was beautiful and Tanya was in a good mood too? Miracles! Should he ask her?

But she was hard to contain today. She was never hungry but by her own admission,

“I’m starving. Let’s eat chat”.

“No”, he protested, “I’m a bun kebab guy”.

“No way”, she screamed over the deafening sound of the crowd, “You really need to step out of your little four by four. We are eating chat”.

He helplessly walked after her, afraid of getting lost.

Ten minutes later they were eating chat, Azhar with a diet Pepsi, scared to dig into the chat.

“Eat, Azhar”, she urged him, mixing hers.

He gulped. He couldn’t do very spicy.

“Eat”, she said, mixing his vigorously for him and commanded again, “Eat, wuss!”.

“I’m not a wuss”, he said weakly, the smell of chat making him nauseous, “but this thing doesn’t look very tempting”.

“If it wasn’t tempting”, she said between mouthfuls, “how would I be eating it?”

“That’s because you’re an alien”, he said, moving the contents of the plate around and searching for something edible for him in there.

She snorted.

“Okay here’s the deal”, she said enthusiastically, “you eat this and I’ll listen to your patriotic Pakistan speech to convince me to stay here? How does that sound?”

“I would’ve given my speech anyway”, he said pompously, “So no incentives required for that. However if eating this means so much to you, I’ll try it”.

He took a spoonful and as predicted his throat was on fire within seconds.

He coughed and spluttered until his eyes were red. He noticed her rolling on the floor laughing.

“Very cruel, Dr. Tariq! I’m dying and you’re laughing”, he said, surfacing for a few seconds and lapsing into a bout of cough again.

Tanya’s amusement at this was breathtaking. He had tears in his eyes from how hot the chat was. But she had tears of laughter. He stopped coughing and watched her laugh. Why didn’t she laugh often?

She finally overcame her laughter and asked,

“Can I take a sip of your Pepsi?”

“No”.

“No?”

“Pepsi is for people like me who need to wash the spice down. You’re a brave one. You’ll just digest it out”.

“Shut up!” She said candidly and took a long swig from his can.

“Ahhh…. Pepsi and chat? Do you know how deadly that combination is?”

“No thanks. I just tried to find that out and it nearly killed me. I’ll take your word for it”.

“Pass me your chat”.

He dutifully gave her his plate and watched as she devoured it.

“Okay”, she said, sparing a second between bites, “What’s amazing about Pakistan?”

Okay, don’t screw up. He instructed himself. This is the most important pitch of your life.

He cleared his throat.

“Well first of all, where will you get chat in the USA?”

She looked at him strangely, hiding a smile.

“Everywhere. It’s available in many places. There are many Pakistani restaurants. And by the way, Pepsi is available there too. Next!”

“Okay”, he started thinking fast, “Where would you find such lovely people? Your own people? Your own place? Where you grew up! Your cousins?”

“My cousins don’t live here anyway. It’s just me and my siblings and my mom. What else have you got, Professor?”

What else have I got? Nothing. Please don’t go.

“There’s so much racism there. You don’t wanna be with racists”.

“But it’s here too”, she said dryly, “surely you’re not one of those idiots who think the West is all bad”.

He pondered his options. He could either just say it now and take his chances or as Bilal had said that Ami would be listening to him now, he could wait for Ami to speak with her people?

Just then they heard screaming behind them,

Apparently Atif Aslam had arrived.

Tanya was unstoppable. She was a huge celebrity nut and loved concerts, arena-style singing, karaoke and every odd thing about music. She clambered to get a close spot since everyone was sitting on the floor and excitedly patted the space next to her for him to join.

His heart sank at the thought of ruining this moment with a proposal that he knew won’t go over well. Savoring the moment, he sat next to her.

Soon they had forgotten everything. They were shrieking the songs and didn’t care how tone deaf they were. People were dancing and some guys had started doing ballroom dancing as a comic move.

He hadn’t laughed and enjoyed himself ever as he did that day. Just Tanya’s company would’ve been enough but to listen to his favorite music with her, share his drink with her, sway to the music with her and sing with her was an out of body experience.

Somebody, stop time! He pleaded to the powers that be. Just once, today, stop time from moving forward. I wanna see her, laugh with her and talk to her before it all ends.

The chaos started settling as Atif eased into some ballads. He asked for requests. There was an uproar and people screamed various famous tracks.

“Write them for me, people”, he said, his usual husky voice floating in the air while he handsomely laughed at his fans.

Azhar wrote his request and ran to hand it to him while Tanya wrote hers and ran with him.

They both deposited their requests in Atif’s hands and returned.

“What did you request?” He asked her, curious to know what she would’ve liked to hear.

“Aadat, of course”, she replied nonchalantly.

“What did you request?” She asked while craning her neck to see if more people were requesting too.

He suddenly felt self-conscious. He couldn’t say. He didn’t want to say and break the spell. He felt foolish and wanted to leave but wanted to stay too.

“Nothing”, he laughed, “I just handed a blank paper. I just wanted to see him up close”.

She looked at him with knowing eyes, half-smiling and half-appraising Bilal’s wonderful brother. He was so straightforward and without pretenses that it was strange to catch him lying. She finally averted her eyes as the lights came out and the arena bathed in artificial light. It was fast getting dark out.

Tanya’s request was first and people went mad singing Aadat.

She felt transported. Bilal wasn’t much of a music fan but always played music in the car. He readily took her recommendations and downloaded them. She had tried to introduce him to some harder music genres but he was more of a Backstreet Boys and Savage Garden guy. She remembered them dancing to November Rain once and playing it for months until they both agreed that they were sick of it now and so moved to Alice In Chains which Bilal immediately objected to and insisted on some Bryan Adams.

Where are you? Her heart got heavy. You found a new person. But you were mine.

Tears always threatened to break through when she thought of him. She blinked hard, tried to focus on the music but the noise inside got louder.

Bilal laughing, tugging her hair, drawing her closer.

Bilal asking her what she’d like for her birthday then surprising her with a huge gift in addition to what she had asked for.

Bilal trying to reach for her while driving and getting easily pushed back, clearly teasing her.

Bilal telling her to shoot for the stars and get a residency and a fellowship and he’ll support her.

Bilal quiet while she asked him if he was giving her the death sentence.

Suddenly, Atif’s voice came over the mic,

“Who gave a request without a name?”

Azhar didn’t say anything. Tanya was quiet. She wanted to hear his request.

“I’ll sing it anyway because it’s a huge favorite of mine too, if I may say so myself”.

The crowd laughed at their self-deprecating star and soon his crooning filled the air around them.

کچھ نہیں مانگوں بس ہے میرا ایک سپنا

دنیا سے کیا لینا دینا بس چاہیۓ اک اپنا

دھڑکن

خواہش

بارش

بوندیں

اور ہو کوئ اپنا

اس سے مل کے موسم بدلے

اور لگے سب اپنا

میں کہاں اور میرے خیال کہاں

تیری یاد ہے پر وصال کہاں

بات بنتی نہیں بنانے سے

ریت ہے یہی زمانےسے

اب کے جو پلٹ کے دیکھوں

سہمی سی ہیں راہیں

تھا مے میرے سپنوں کو

خاموشی سے بلائیں

دل سے جو دعا دے ایسا ہے میرا ہمراہی

میٹھی سی سزا دے ایسا ہے میرا ہمراہی

میری چاہتوں کا سوال جہاں

اس کے پیار کی مثال وہاں

Tanya sat listless, tears flowing down her cheeks. Losing love was easy. Mourning it had become devastating.

Azhar didn’t look at her deliberately. His heart was thumping faster than it had ever.

This is the closest I’ll come to a proposal, he thought dejectedly. I can’t ask her. It will end everything. I just want to hold on to her a little longer.

He finally looked at her and his heart broke. She was crying silently. He put an arm around her and drew her close. She easily came to him, put her head on his shoulder and felt like Bilal was with her again.

CHAPTER 63:

He listened quietly. He knew her sons were impulsive but to fall for the same girl? That had got to be either an exceptionally beautiful woman or a witch who was casting spells.

She spoke at length. Bilal’s fascination with her, that was fleeting at best. And now Azhar’s that was relentless, strong and determined.

This place, his library, had become a meeting place of sorts for them. They usually sat there when she visited. This room was quiet and offered a sanctuary to her disorganized thoughts.

She looked around the capacious room. This room was made especially for her father’s book collection thirty years ago. The huge oak-paneled walls with rosewood cabinets were lined with books, alphabetically organized by her mother when she was alive. There were recesses in the ceiling that had spot lights, each hundreds of watts bright and bathed the room in a mysterious light when switched on. The books had been preserved with special wax treatments given regularly and some of the more expensive books were in fabric covers to prevent mold.

This place had an eerie quality to it, like a morgue, but she liked it. This was her only refuge. When she was here, death seemed unpleasant, even though the place looked like death and gloom lurked in its corners.

“So what should I do, Abu? Give up and bring that girl and lose my son forever?”

He rose from his chair. He was a tall, stately man, just like his daughter was a tall, stately woman. He had a physique that had been built even more impressive with following a strict diet and workout regimen. He didn’t compromise on health. He made compromises for almost everything else but health was his power.

He had heavy-lidded eyes like his daughter’s that gave his face an aristocratic look. His strong jaw added to the whimsical tales that his old face told. He had always maintained a strictly shaven look. Even when he was younger he never went without shaving for a day. Sometimes he shaved twice a day.

But his eyes! His eyes were Azhar’s! A rebellious and mutinous shade of gray. When happy, the gray lightened and made room for some brown and even some black sometimes. When sad, they’d become a darker shade of brown. When angry, they were their grayest.

She loved him with her heart and soul. He couldn’t have been there during a lot of life’s injustices but she loved him. He was the strongest support and had never failed her with her kids. She had wanted to open her heart to him about Sabir too but her mother warned her that she’d be hated by him if she showed any distaste for Sabir. She couldn’t take his hatred. So she remained quiet and actually, made him feel that he had done an excellent job with finding her a husband.

Finally he said, thoughtfully,

“Azhar isn’t a concern. Bilal is. Beware of wounded animals. They’re dangerous”.

She looked at him with anxious eyes,

“Abu! I don’t care about Bilal. Really that boy has disappointed me so much that what’s another let down? Azhar, my life is with him. I can’t be cavalier about him”.

He tut tutted.

“Even though you don’t care about Bilal, if you want to get through to Azhar, you will have to get through to Bilal”.

“But I can’t”, she wailed, “I’m telling you. He had a finality in his tone that he has never had. I know him, Abu, he’s a man of no resolve, no ambition. None of my sons are as useless as Bilal. But he has become the biggest problem….”

He raised his left hand,

“Quiet! You need to listen. Really listen!”

She fell silent.

“You acknowledge yourself that Bilal didn’t change when you refused that girl to him. He actually became more compliant. He married Maha and is even having a baby with her. He wants to make his sacrifice count. He wants to know that he lost his love for something. For you. His father and brothers.

But think about it”, he said, briskly pacing the library now, Nighat’s eyes following him, “He changed when you said no to Azhar. Why would that happen? You know why. He is seeing it all replay and can see Azhar being a stronger lover and leaving everyone for Tanya. If that happens, he loses the family unit that is his backbone. And goes to Square 1. Empty-handed without his favorite brother. But it’s not just the brother he wants. He wants everyone. He’s more of a threat to your authority than you had counted on. So you see why he acted like he did?”

Nighat was quiet. She was always awed at the master evaluator her father was. He lived and breathed human psychology and had had a dominance in every relationship because he was able to catch people’s weaknesses early on.

“So you think Bilal is actually going to go through with his threat?”

He looked at his dangerously intelligent daughter, so like him in personality and physicality. But she had her mother’s eyes. Hazel, clear! His wife was a gorgeous woman of small proportions. He had never been able to love another woman after she died quite young.

“Don’t underestimate him”, he advised softly, “He has nothing to lose and everything to gain. He will readily leave you and make a family with his brothers. But then his sacrifice will go to waste. He doesn’t want it to go to waste. He wants you and his father too. I will talk to Azhar once as you have requested and try to dissuade him. Do you think I should tell him that Tanya is his brother’s ex?”

She shuddered at the thought. As much as she hated Bilal, she wasn’t willing to do this. She had realized that Tanya might eventually become her daughter-in-law. And if Bilal was staying quiet, she’ll stay quiet too. She knew she’d lose Azhar if he found out about Tanya’s past. He might go crazy. He was madly in love and she couldn’t risk anything about Azhar. If he ever found out that she dated Bilal to the point of considering being together for life, he might not survive it or may be he will but barely. Azhar wasn’t Bilal. He went after things with a passion that verged on insanity.

“No, Abu! That we can’t do. Azhar will lose his senses. The shock would be too big for him. But yes! Please talk to him. Please! He listens to you”.

“Sure”, he said briefly.

They sat in silence for a few minutes.

“How’s Sabir?” He asked, nonchalantly, looking intently at his late wife’s photo on the huge table, a bewitching smile on her young face.

“He’s good, Abu, he’s very good”.

“Hmm”, he responded and continued to caress the frame of his beautiful wife’s photo.

CHAPTER 64:

He parked his car across from the street and sauntered in. This place was as familiar to him like a mother’s womb is to her baby. He had grown up here in a way. He had chased Bilal in the massive gardens and then they had cooled off in the fountains that studded these gardens. The beauty of this place was indescribable. Sometimes he wondered how his mother was so bitter when she grew up in a place that looked like a piece of heaven itself.

Azhar walked up to the house which could take twenty minutes itself due to the vastness of this place. He walked past the lush, carefully manicured gardens and spotted many hydrangeas, hibiscus and roses that he had planted with his maternal grandmother. How they had potted them first and then planted them in better soil. How they had made little science projects out of them. How Bilal had watched in awe as the sunflowers blossomed and the roses took a color deeper than the parent plant. He remembered it all.

Many freak accidents also happened in these gardens and some in the majestic house that rose behind it. Bilal fell in the pond once and even though Azhar didn’t know swimming, he jumped after him and kept him calm while calling for help at the top of his lungs. He still remembered his grandfather, walking briskly towards them, the most graceful man even when he was panicked, and effortlessly pulling them out and hugging them until they had relaxed.

What Nighat lacked in warmth and love, their Nana and Nani more than made up for. They took trips with them, spent months together at their place, ate late at night with their grandparents while they told stories of another time and when they grew up they had full access to the tennis court, the basketball and squash court. The massiveness of this house was justifiable considering it was put to such good use.

He remembered affectionately when Bilal got his own tennis instructor because he was so good. He remembered Abu objecting. He remembered his Nana balking at Abu and winking at Bilal. Bilal was his Nani’s favorite and rumor had it that she had tried to legally adopt him but Sabir Hussain didn’t approve. Because their Nana was so madly in love with his wife, Bilal rose in favor with him too.

Where did the time go? He wondered. Why do we grow up?

He was now going up the steps to the palatial house, set on 14000 square feet with four kitchens, twenty servant suites in the back, two swimming pools, a backyard where his Nana kept his pets, fourteen rooms, seventeen bathrooms and four sprawling great rooms. He loved this house and Bilal and he had wondered who would inherit it ultimately.

He walked into the house, the blue print inscribed on his mind, his steps sure, his walk quick. He was a quick walker but when he had to see him, he always walked quicker.

He entered the first great room, tastefully decorated in gold and blue, with twelve foot high ceilings and a row of windows on each side. Each window was draped with the finest curtains from the best designers in Karachi and some had even been brought back by his grandparents on one of their trips to China. The richness of the cloth contrasted heavily with the simplicity of the furniture and gave an elegant and regal look to this room. This room was considered a sort of family room. It had a huge fireplace on one end with an extension of precious rocks and marble behind it that went all the way to the ceiling. He looked at the gold-cream sofas and wondered how they had been kept so impeccably spotless through the years. Their Nani had excellent taste and their Nana missed no opportunity to tell everyone that she had decorated the whole house with little input appreciated by her from anyone. He always had a twinkle in his eye when he said that. Their Nani always blushed.

“What’s up, Nanajan?” He greeted in his usual way, “Waiting for me standing up?”

The older man laughed before he turned away from the ornaments that he was surveying on the mantelpiece. He saw his young grandson, the favorite of his favorite, standing there like he wasn’t the most handsome man alive.

As Azhar saw his Nana smiling, he felt overwhelming love for the only man he had ever considered his mentor and guide. He had leaned on Arsalan Hashmi more than once. And Arsalan had never let him down.

CHAPTER 65:

“What’s going on, rockstar?” He came forward and pulled Azhar in an embrace.

Hugging Nana had been his favorite thing to do for years. And then he grew up and somehow they had less time for their aging grandfather.

But aging would be a bad word for him, Azhar contemplated, looking at his handsome Nana who looked younger than Sabir Hussain even.

“Nothing much. Work!” He threw himself in a pile of floor cushions and settled there.

“You work too much”. Arsalan observed mildly.

“Have you been talking to Ami? These are her words”.

“I don’t use others’ words. I’m an original”, Arsalan said jokingly.

“That’s for sure.”

The two men sat in a comfortable silence, broken only by the scurrying of the house staff outside the great room.

“Nighat was here a few days ago”, Arsalan started.

“Was she?” Azhar said mildly, even though his apprehension rose.

“She is worried about you and how you’ve been advocating for a girl whom you don’t know all that well”.

“If you want to talk to me”, Azhar said, temper rising as usual at his mother’s self-serving account of everything, “then you’ll have to believe my version”.

Ah he was his daughter’s son alright! Temperamental, wild and stubborn.

“I’d like to hear your version”, he said mildly.

Azhar told him everything. How he had met Tanya, that they had worked together for a year, her intelligence, wit and even her failed relationship.

Arsalan listened intently just as he had listened to Nighat a few days ago. When finally Azhar took a break, he said, with an amused expression,

“So what does she look like? Or are you one of those men who just want a woman with brains?”

Azhar smiled at his grandfather’s raunchy comment. They were more like friends. Azhar, Bilal and Arsalan had been more father and sons together than Bilal and Azhar with Sabir.

“Even though I am one of those men”, he said, winking at Arsalan, “she’s beautiful”.

Arsalan laughed. He felt lighter. She seemed an excellent choice. Her past however…… well, he shrugged the thought, everyone has a past.

“Congratulations, young man”, he said in his characteristic booming voice, “you have found a gem. And a rare one at that. Congratulations!”

Azhar beamed.

“Wasn’t Bilal in love with someone too?” Arsalan asked, conversationally.

It hurt him when Ami and even Nana mentioned Bilal like an afterthought. Nana had thought to have a chat with him. Why didn’t he have one with Bilal? He wouldn’t have felt as alone as he did.

“Why’re you asking me?” The anger in his voice was palpable.

“You would know. You two are very close. In fact, there is no one closer to Bilal than you”.

“Ironically, he chose to tell me when he told Ami and then it was a barrage of madness”.

“Well, he could’ve fought for it and may be he’d have won”.

Azhar considered his words. In honest moments when he had evaluated Bilal’s overall fight for love, he had found Bilal a coward. He backed off without any words with Ami. She said no and he gave that no to his girlfriend. He had begrudgingly agreed with his mother on Bilal’s lack of courage. He could’ve made history. Instead he chose to run.

“I don’t know. I can’t speak for him. Even though like you say, we are very close”.

“Hmm”, Arsalan said, looking at the walls where the evening shadows were getting longer as the sun was setting outside the window.

“Nighat always felt that he didn’t have it in him to have a career, hold a job, get married or have kids. I have to say, he disappointed a lot of us who were rooting for him”.

As always, he saw red. As always his mother’s injustices and his brother’s sad life remained the all-important issue in life. Even if he got Tanya, the wounds of Bilal’s many failures and their parents’ complete disconnect couldn’t heal.

“She would feel that”, he said evenly, controlling the urge to smash all the precious Tiffany ornaments in the room, “Because she made him a coward and someone who walks on eggshells around her”.

“I don’t agree with that”, Arsalan said pragmatically, aware and slightly in awe of Azhar’s anger and impudence, trying to not have a fight, “People have to take responsibility for their actions. Bilal can’t blame it on Nighat. She has done an excellent job with her kids, given the circumstances”.

He knew Azhar wouldn’t agree but truly believed that Nighat had done the best she could. He got up and reached over the mantelpiece to turn on the lights.

Azhar rose from the floor to his full height. Arsalan turned around and found him face to face with his young grandson, so like his daughter in the way he responded to any commentary towards the people he loved.

“What part of her job do you find excellent?” He hissed in the older man’s ear.

“She’s my daughter and holds a unique position as my child. A child who has gone through a lot of pain because of one error in judgment that I made. Even though one, it was a critical error. The biggest mistake of my life. But given the circumstances, she did a great job. You won’t agree but she did a selflessly great job”.

“How would you know how she raised us? You never visited. You never came except those few nights when I called you. And you let Bilal suffer in silence. You always wanted us to be here so we could spend time with you but you never came over and saw the cemetery that she made of that home. I’ve forgiven you but I haven’t forgotten”.

“You certainly have a very sharp memory. I didn’t visit as much as I would. But it was not always like that. Surely you remember! I used to visit a lot. It just became hard to breathe the same air as your father”.

“My father?” Azhar scoffed, “My poor father? He was the problem? It’s baffling that you blame Abu for Ami’s wretched life. Abu was never someone that she held in much regard anyway. He was an instrument. To have a marriage. To have kids. To have a nice life. Are you kidding me? I don’t agree with how Abu turns a blind eye to Ami’s atrocities but don’t shift the blame. I won’t have it”.

“You fool”, Arsalan said softly, “Sabir is a snake. You’re his child so may be you can’t see that. But have you seen your father’s real face ever? May be not. Partly because it changed over the years and partly because he poured his venom into Nighat until she became his hideous reflection and now he looks better. You’re a fool to not know Sabir Hussain for who he is. Or rather who he was. The cowering and groveling excuse for a man you see today isn’t the man who fathered you. If I could take you back in time and show you, I would. Nighat was right! Sabir’s spawn can’t be trusted”.

Azhar laughed his cold, apathetic laugh that raised the hair on Arsalan’s back. He laughed until the grey got greyer in Arsalan’s eyes. He laughed until he had to sit down. But he didn’t stop. An invisible force was making him laugh.

This narrative, Azhar thought, is so bizarre and so familiar. Look at him defending his daughter, just as classist and elitist as she is! I love Nanajan but that doesn’t change anything about him in how he keeps rewriting history. It’s his own fraudulent account of supposed misery faced by his favorite daughter.

He finally recovered and straightened up. He stared ahead. His eyes looked dead.

“You didn’t save us, Nanajan, why didn’t you? If you knew everything, why didn’t you? I called you that night. I saw what I saw. She used to get so angry and take it out on Bilal often”.

Arsalan looked away, at a time far gone, when Azhar called him frantically that Nighat was spanking Bilal. She was pregnant with Hashir and had had a miserable pregnancy.

He didn’t know what happened afterwards but by the time he got there, the two brothers were huddled in a corner of the house, shivering with fright and Bilal had urinated all over his clothes.

Azhar and Bilal were brought back by him. But he didn’t bring Nighat. She couldn’t come. She had to stay at her husband’s house. Sabir wasn’t home and she didn’t want to ask him over the phone, sure he’d say no. She begged him to take her too but he refused.

“I can’t, my child!” Famous last words. He had said them too. “Without Sabir’s permission you shouldn’t move from here. I’m taking the kids”.

She had finally given up, sobbing in a corner and hiding her face in her knees. He had kissed her forehead and left.

Eight hours later Sabir Hussain called him,

“I’m at the hospital. They’re saying she won’t make it. I don’t know what happened. I came home and she was lying on the floor unresponsive. They say she is in septic shock”.

But Azhar didn’t know this part. None of her children knew this. She stayed in the hospital for two months. When she came back, she had lost the remaining light in her eyes too.

She had gone into labor at twenty-eight weeks due to stress and very poor health. But Hashir was born. Allah saved him.

Arsalan lost his daughter as he knew her. His wife, Nighat’s mother, out of grief at the many secrets of Nighat’s marriage, died a year later.

Nighat or her mother didn’t tell him of the horrors of her marriage. His source was someone else. Someone who thought and acted just like him and could sacrifice anything for his family.

CHAPTER 66:

Amidst Hamza’s cries and Maha’s screams, Bilal told Azhar that Ami had given word that she’d go meet with Tanya’s mom.

But Azhar didn’t completely register and didn’t want to. Bilal’s son was born and this was going to be the only highlight of the day. He ran into the labor room as soon as they asked Bilal to come in and the nurses had to physically restrain him from entering the labor room as he wasn’t Maha’s spouse. Bilal was. Bilal rushed in and then came out and pulled him in too when no one was looking.

Maha looked exhausted. Her pregnancy had been pretty stable and healthy but today she looked exhausted. He went over to her, suddenly feeling a little in awe of her pushing a human out. She smiled at him and he took her hand.

“He nearly killed me”, she whispered.

He kissed her forehead where tiny beads of sweat had accumulated. She had categorically requested that no one be present during labor with her so he hadn’t been here.

He wiped her forehead carefully. She asked for some water. He handed it to her.

“Do you want to eat something?” He asked, more tenderly than he ever had.

She touched his cheek and stroked it along its length.

“Don’t worry about me. Go see Hamza first. Azhar is already introducing himself as the uncle in chief”.

He smiled at his wife’s description of his brother, then turned and walked to the ante room.

Azhar wasn’t talking or introducing himself. He had Hamza in his arms more expertly than Bilal thought he himself could, and was staring at him.

“They don’t come out pretty”, he remarked.

Bilal laughed.

“No, they don’t. Remember Hashir and Aman?”

“Gosh they were hideous”, Azhar made a face, “Hamza is much better. Don’t tell Maha but looks a lot like you”.

“Really?” Bilal immediately peered at interest at the baby’s face. “No. He has gray eyes. That’s your color”.

“But you had gray eyes too, Billu, they became brown later”.

“We can ask Ami and settle it”, Bilal offered.

“Are you kidding me? I’m the only authority on your childhood and even infancy. No one else. And now Hamza is going to be on our team too”.

Somehow Azhar getting Tanya wasn’t painful. A part of him was sad but it wasn’t painful. He was sad because he didn’t get her. He wasn’t sad because Azhar was getting her.

They brought Hamza out to Maha.

“Did you like him, Azhar?” Maha asked curiously.

“I love him. I just love him. He looks just like you, Maha”.

Bilal doubled over laughing. Azhar was a trip when he was happy. And Tanya had definitely changed him into a lighter, funnier person.

Azhar took over Hamza to Maha. She took him in her arms and said looking up at the two brothers,

“You guys need to get out and make it worth your while by eating. He needs to eat too”.

“Okay but when we come back”, Azhar said since he had been planning this day forever, “we have to say the Azan and someone has to formally tell him what his name is”.

“Is that a custom too?” Maha’s eyes were wide.

“Just made it up”, he said proudly, thumping his chest.

Maha and Bilal laughed. The two brothers shortly left for lunch.

On their way back, they met Nighat Afshan who was coming in to see Maha.

“Ami! Did you bring something for Maha to eat? They’re already making her feed the baby”.

“Yes, Azhar”, she said patiently, somewhat fed up with his relentless enthusiasm about the baby that had just gotten more over the past four weeks.

“Okay Ami, settle a debate! Weren’t Bilal’s eyes gray before and then they became brown?”

She smiled lovingly at Bilal,

“No. You have grey eyes. Bilal always had brown eyes. Like me. His are darker but the same shape, the same depth”.

Bilal was quiet. He used to love Ami so much. Now there was just a hollow space that was emptying out even more everyday.

I look like you, Ami? He thought. Then why did you always call me ugly? You got angry when people likened me to you in any way. But now you like me and my eyes? Why? Because I’m not yours anymore and you can sense that.

Azhar and Nighat chatted all the way to the maternity ward where Nighat held Hamza, handed over the food to Maha that Bilal put out in front of hers and Azhar said the loudest Azan ever in Hamza’s right ear.

After he had finished the Azan, he took Hamza from Nighat, raised him above his shoulders and said in an important voice,

“Everything the light touches is our kingdom”.

The labor room erupted in giggles.

Once everyone had seen Hamza and Maha was tucked away for the night, Bilal and Azhar left for home too.

“Wanna eat a Kabab roll?”

“Azhar! You’re a glutton. How do you not gain weight?”

They parked their car outside Silver Spoon and ordered two kebab rolls. Suddenly Bilal remembered,

“You understood what I said earlier , right? Ami will go with your proposal”.

Azhar was immediately quiet. He didn’t want to know what lengths Bilal had to go to in order to convince their mother but he asked anyway,

“Bilal! Be honest with me. What did you have to do to get this deal?”

Bilal didn’t say anything. Then he shrugged and said,

“Guess I’m a good negotiator”.

“No, seriously”, Azhar’s eyes started getting darker, a sure sign that he could tell what might have happened, “Did you agree to something in exchange?”

Bilal laughed. Azhar’s skepticism of Ami was overlooked by him in the past. He thought Azhar was a cynic and considered cynicism was the way to be impressive and worldly. But he had seen a side of Ami that wasn’t human at all.

“I didn’t agree to sell my organs, if that’s what you mean”, he said finally. “We had a talk and I convinced her”.

“Hmm”. Azhar was thoughtful.

Their rolls came but Azhar didn’t touch his.

“Azhar! Listen”, Bilal said in a strange tone, “Don’t give up your love. Looking back, I shouldn’t have given it up. Everything would have been okay. Eventually. You wouldn’t have left me and that’s all I really care about. Hashir and Aman would have come around too and Ami never cared for me enough that I should’ve listened to her so much. So if you can live your life, live it.”

They sat together, eating their rolls, sharing a large one liter coke bottle, occasionally commenting on the goings on in their surroundings. They had always found comfort in each other. For a long time, the two of them were the only family they knew.

CHAPTER 67:

It was her last day of house job. Somehow the year had flown by. Everything seemed surreal.

She couldn’t believe that she had no plans, no prospects, nothing lined up. This wasn’t like her. She was a planner and worrier. Somehow she had become complacent in the quest of everything.

There was one silver lining though. She was going to be seeing her cousins for a month in California. They had insisted that she come for a full year but that she couldn’t do. She had tried hard to get an observership at one of the clinics close to her uncle’s place but hadn’t been successful.

Oh well, she thought, another day, another failed attempt at nothing.

No one was working. People had finished rounds in a haste and were saying long byes to each other. Some people had actually made the best of their house job and married each other. Some had dated. Some had broken up. A little laughter. A little sunshine. A whole lot of heavy departure.

Suddenly she missed him with an agony that was unexpected. She craved for him and even yearned for him. He had become a habit. He had made life predictable, something that she had always wanted life to be.

She sat on the steps that led up to her surgical floors and watched people eating and chatting. She had no friends. Some acquaintances waved to her as they passed by. Overwhelming loneliness took over. She picked up her bag and went to the cafeteria .

Today her feet were heavy. She remembered a time last summer when they were heavy, then had become lighter with him and now they were heavy again. The circle of loss. It never lost its recurrence.

She smiled as she remembered what he said about hating samosas and then eating them everyday with her still. A part of her that had become sadistic in its torture of Bilal’s brother relished his non-enjoyment of his meal. But she could never detect signs of aversion. He ate every samosa like it was custom-made for him.

Azhar! Bilal’s brother.

Azhar! The only link to Bilal and even then, miraculously, the biggest distraction from Bilal.

Azhar had asked her if she had loved someone and she didn’t have to lie.

Azhar loved her. Like his brother once did.

Somehow crying for him seemed dishonest. Like she was cheating on Bilal. But he was a friend. A wonderful, fantastic, awesome friend. The only friend when life’s chaos had claimed all her tranquil utopic images.

There was no denying it! She missed him. Dearly! She couldn’t love him like she loved Bilal. But she could still love him like a friend who had wiped her tears during a song and ate chat for her even though he nearly choked on it.

His voice was in her ears and she smiled at how similar to Bilal’s it was. It got louder until someone tugged her hair from the back,

“Why’re you sitting here? I’ve been looking all over for you”.

She turned around, calm coming over as she saw her gorgeous friend standing behind her, a bemused expression on his handsome face, two plates with samosas on them and a bottle of Pepsi tucked under his left arm.

“Figured it’s your last day so I should spend it with you. And eat our standard lunch. And share our Pepsi too”.

Gratefully she took the plate from him, scooted over to make room for him and sat close to him, knowing that this was probably the last time they were eating or sitting together.

CHAPTER 68:

“Azhar!” She called gently, grateful for his elation these past few days since Hamza’s arrival. He had dedicated every awake minute to him and Maha was only responsible for feeding him. He really was maternal in how he was with kids.

“What’s up?” He said, looking up for a second from the book he was reading.

She smiled at his reading. It was Karl Marx.

“Do you know that he didn’t prove to be a great waged worker?”

“Huh?” He looked up, focusing on her like he was seeing her for the first time. “What did you say?”

“Karl Marx”, she said casually, “He got fired from most jobs”.

“You know Karl Marx?” He asked slowly, intently looking at her as if trying to detect signs of a lie.

“Of course I do. I finished his books on god forsaken theories in tenth grade”.

“If you call them god forsaken”, he inquired with curiosity and a mounting inclination to know more about his mother, “Why did you read all of his work?”

“Just like that”, she shrugged, “I like to know what someone who has a difference of opinion with me thinks like. It’s interesting. Human psychology is the most interesting thing to me”.

“It sure is”, he said smiling slowly, “you know, Ami, I’m sure someday you’ll tell me that you were dating Yoda. We don’t know you but at all”.

“Then take the time to know me. All of you hate me”.

“We don’t hate you”, he said, affronted at this spin on her own cold attitude towards them, “We are scared of you”.

“Am I scary?”

He sighed.

“Ami! Your mission in life is to be scary. I don’t know why you push people away”.

“People haven’t been nice to me”, she said, a far-away look in her eyes.

Sometimes he wondered what it was that she had endured. He had seen pictures of her youth, before she was married, and the difference was startling. She had always been beautiful but she used to have warm eyes before, a smile that lit up every photo and an innocence that came through.

He had guessed many years ago that Bilal had seen something between their parents that had become the bane of his existence. Azhar had been away at Islamabad to spend time with some cousins, and when he came back Bilal was different. He didn’t cry to sleep with Ami and chose Azhar for every need. He started to have panic attacks before school and had to stay at home for close to a year. His panic attacks got better but even in IBA he had severe anxiety with course work and any demands that were placed on him.

But what could it be? He racked his imagination again. Did he see them having sex? Guess that’s traumatic but not something that he can’t get over until now. Did he see one of them with someone else? Could there possibly be infidelity in their parents’ marriage? What was it that kept the two of them so distant even though they had been a couple for more than 30 years?

“If people haven’t been nice to you”, he said, trying to take away the forlorn expression on her face, “then tell me! I’ll deal with them. How dare they make my mother cry!”.

She smiled broadly. Affection for her came so rarely from her dearest son that it warmed her heart.

“It’s okay! I’m a big girl. I don’t cry anymore. I get even”.

She looked in his gray eyes and knew he understood that. He didn’t cry either. Except when it was about Bilal. He got even too. Except in her defense.

“Okay let’s talk business”, she said briskly, “when can we go to Tanya’s?”

Azhar blushed. He had been texting with her the night before.

“Hey are we never going to see each other?” He had typed.

“Who said that? We can see each other. Where do you wanna go?”

“Wherever Nyle took you. Seems like you had a great time”.

“Actually, it was a bust”.

“Okay. For him it’s okay and might I say, even well-deserved, but don’t call the date with me a bust. I’ll be very angry”.

“It’s not a date 🙄 ”

“Okay. Then what is it?”

“Get together. Catch up”.

“Business meeting.”

“Business meeting?”

“Yes. Since you want to name it”.

“I don’t want to name it. I just don’t want it to be called a date. That implies something else”.

“Okay. I’m really scared to go on that something else with you”.

“Then you can forget about our catch up also if you’re so scared”.

“No I can’t. I’m sure you haven’t been eating so I have to feed you”.

“For your information, I’ve been eating”.

“What did you have today?”

“Samosa”.

“Ugh! That darn samosa again. But that’s our food. You can’t have it by yourself”.

“But you said you hated it”.

“Well you do eat hateful food but if I had to choose between samosa and chat, I think samosa is slightly less life-threatening”.

“And bun kebab is the most wholesome meal, right?”

“Of course! And control your flippancy about bun kebab in front of Bilal. He will stab you if you speak ill of the bun kebab”.

“😒”

“What does that emoji mean?”

“Don’t know”.

“You could’ve sent another random emoji but you chose this one. Sad state”.

“Azhar!” He heard Ami’s voice, “Please come back and tell me when we can go see Tanya”.

“Right now”, he joked.

She gave him a withering look.

“You’re way too Marx-y today. I’ll ask Bilal and take him with me. I don’t think you should go just yet. Give me a good photograph that I could give her mother in case she wanted to see”.

To her astonishment, he quickly opened the drawer next to him, took out a 4X6 photo with a flourish and handed it to her.

“Here”.

“Wow! Talk about being prepared”.

“It has been my dream, Ami, since forever to have my photo circulated in girls’ homes and have their family comment on how pig-like my nose is or how monkey-like my face is. So I got this last month”.

She smiled at him. When in a good mood, he could be ultra charming.

CHAPTER 69:

He parked his car at Salt ‘n’ Pepper and watched the waves.

Waiting for her had always been sweet. Somehow she had become a habit in addition to the twenty other titles that she had accumulated while being in his life.

What would it be like to have her? He considered another possibility. Or lose her?

He could lose her for sure. His mother couldn’t be trusted. Truth be told, he didn’t trust himself either. He had never been in a relationship before and had no idea how people proposed.

May be I should watch some movies? He tried to plan his proposal. And look at some rings.

No, he immediately declined the idea. I’ll just say something wrong and then no one would be able to fix it.

Her slim silhouette appeared on the boardwalk and slowly started coming into focus. Sometimes Tanya wore truly dreadful clothes but sometimes when she was in a good mood, she dressed breathtakingly well.

She was wearing a long flowy dress, blue in color with pink accents. It touched her ankles seductively and flared out at the same time. She had flat strappy sandals on with some anklets and toe rings. He had never seen her feet. He wondered what the rest of her would be like. She had a big bag dangling from her right shoulder, only slightly smaller than the bag she carried in the hospital but oversized bags were her thing and complimented her tiny body.

Evening was setting in and people were coming back from offices, the road across from Sea View alive with traffic. The familiar Karachi smog was in the air and while some might think smog was ugly, when it mixed with the pink of the setting sun it did give the illusion that it was just clouds around the whole city.

She came closer and gave him a shy smile. Sometimes he thought she was an angel and only he could see her. People around her walked so unaffected, not in awe of her at all, when all she had to do was look up and take him captive.

“Why’re you getting so fat?” She punched him lightly on his arm.

He cleared his throat before tripping over his words and said,

“I’m thinking you’ve gotten fat too. Eating your mom’s cooking a lot, I see!”

“Actually”, she said mischievously, “I’ve been learning to cook. And I’m getting pretty good. Haven’t burned anything in four days”.

“Wow” he said thinking how lovely it would be to have her cook with him in the kitchen. He was an excellent cook and had had to learn to survive his mother’s bad cooking.

“In fact”, she got shy again, “I did bring something if you wanted to try. I made dessert today and asked Mama if I could save some for you”.

Tanya! Please marry me.

“Erm…. yeah sure. What is it?”

She took out a food saver and something rattled inside.

“Oh this thing that’s being noisy is dessert”?

She gave him a scalding look.

“Do you want it?”

More than my life.

“Yes, yes! You’re a tease, Tanya! Get it out already”.

“Some might argue that you’re very impatient”.

She finally opened it and the rattling thing was a spoon. And the dessert was

“Tiramisu?” He screamed, totally taken aback at how a newbie could make that.

“It’s very simple actually. I can give you the recipe”.

Or you could make it for me for the rest of our lives together.

“Thanks. Let’s dig in”

She watched as he ate. She refused to eat any as she was going to have dinner but it was delicious.

“Girlie! For an amateur cook you aren’t bad at all”.

“Thanks”, she laughed.

They went up the steps to the restaurant and soon had ordered and were sitting talking about random things.

“Hey wait! I forgot to show you the biggest happening of this year”.

He pulled out his phone, swiped a few times and handed it to her.

“Who’s that?” She asked, looking at the gorgeous baby with the gray eyes.

“Bilal’s son, Hamza. Isn’t he the cutest?”

Suddenly the restaurant became crowded and she couldn’t get her breath in. The waves outside got disorganized and she felt like they were fighting to get to the shore first. But what was the point? Even if they got to the shore, they couldn’t really survive beyond that. Didn’t they know it?

The sea, the moon, the refusal, her life going down the scaffold, a barrage of unpleasant emotions for her ex-lover. Her bruised pride that asked her what it was that she didn’t have. The demons of infidelity that reminded her that she wished beyond what she deserved. That she dreamed big, then fell face forward from the highest cloud.

Her eyes got blurred. Azhar was saying something but she had her head bent low, staring at the baby. He looked just a little bit like her too. He will always look like her. A piece of her soul and a slice of her heart had remained in Hamza’s father forever. Even if Bilal wanted, he couldn’t erase the unmistakable signs on his baby of a union scorned and a heart broken and walked over.

Would it have been less painful if she had someone to call her own too? If she had been able to move on too? Love someone else? Make them stay up with her entire nights? Love them with abandon and kiss them like she was asking for their life?

No! A thousand men couldn’t be what Bilal was.

She looked at Azhar. She sensed he wanted more. If he found out that she was Bilal’s ex, everything will change. She had to freeze this moment. Right now. Or everything will go down in flames.

“Azhar! I’m sorry”, she said, genuinely apologetic for this dear man getting the brunt of her past, “I just remembered I have to go. I have to be somewhere. We will have dinner some other time.”

Before he could say anything, she ran out and kept running towards her car, night falling now, the headlights of hundreds of car illuminating the way while darkness spread inside her.

CHAPTER 70:

He could see but he didn’t say anything. Azhar could have dark spells where he didn’t talk or smile for days. Bilal had learned to take it in stride. He knew this was Azhar’s way of dealing with problems.

He shared little, if ever. Bilal had always been so consumed with his own problems that Azhar had never had the spotlight. He helped Bilal through girl problems, school problems and now with baby problems. Bilal wondered where his brother learned so much about babies and then remembered that he practically raised him and their youngest two brothers.

“What happened, son?” Nighat got concerned at the dinner table when Azhar didn’t even make small talk. “Did something happen?”

Azhar sulked. What did she care? She had been waiting for something weird to happen.

“Nothing,” he said patiently.

“Then why are you so quiet?” She persisted.

Azhar didn’t say anything. He continued eating.

Nighat had always been mystified and scared of this behavior. Azhar’s anger and mercurial habits were well-known and always seemed to alternate with a particularly happy mood. He would wear a sepulchral mood for days and then all of a sudden, sunshine would break through and he’d return to his normal, happy self.

She looked at Bilal who was quietly eating. She tried to get his attention but he was purposely not looking anywhere. He avoided her like the plague since Hamza had come into the fold.

What the hell, she thought with anger, another baby that cries all night. He’s insufferable.

Maha, oblivious to everything and always focused on her own self more than anything else, said out of nowhere,

“Azhar! We won’t eat at home tomorrow. Let’s make a plan now and eat out tomorrow evening”.

Azhar smiled. He loved Maha like a little sister. She was very pleasant and loving when she wanted to be and was a little spoilt and petulant but overall he liked her around. And she had given them Hamza. She certainly was one of his favorite people.

“Will go for sure. We can’t say no to you. Wherever you want to go. My treat”.

Maha laughed a silly laugh that made Nighat cringe. Bilal looked at Maha,

“Didn’t you say yesterday that you need to lose weight?”

“I can lose weight next month”, everyone laughed.

By the time dinner was over, Azhar was in a remarkably better mood and Bilal felt the clouds lifting.

Nighat followed him into his room.

“I asked you, son, to give me a date when I should go see Tanya’s mom. And her phone number too. I was thinking I’ll call her mom tomorrow. The sooner the better”.

Bilal had been walking behind her, tracing her steps into Azhar’s room, always wary of his mother’s disingenuous schemes.

“I’ve been calling her since yesterday but she hasn’t picked up”.

Bilal stopped in his tracks. He didn’t want to be a part of any conversation that was about Tanya. She had started to bother him again with her constant haunting of his thoughts.

“Why?” Nighat asked.

Azhar was quiet.

“There must be a reason”, Nighat persisted, secretly jubilant that this beast of an ordeal was taking care of itself, “why would she stop talking all of a sudden?”

Why doesn’t Ami stop? Bilal wondered while sweating lightly at what was coming. Doesn’t she know that she’s poking the bear? He’s going to go off on her any second.

Azhar didn’t say anything again.

She turned to Bilal, whom she had noticed standing behind her,

“Bilal! Isn’t it strange? Wouldn’t you say it’s a little strange that this girl doesn’t pick up the phone at a pivotal time like this? What does it say?”

He was nonplussed. Ami was egging Azhar on and trying to get a reaction when she knew full well that the reaction could blow the house up.

She turned to face Azhar again and found him face to face with her.

She was startled for a fraction of a second but she didn’t fear men anymore. She had spent a lifetime with their father. The cruelest man that any woman would ever meet. He had certainly made her ferociously strong.

“Enjoying yourself because she left me?” He breathed in her face.

“Azhar!” Bilal walked forward and tried to contain him before it was too late. Azhar, taller and stronger than him, extended an arm and effortlessly stopped him in his tracks. Bilal felt the push in his chest but Azhar was unaffected. He didn’t recoil in the least. He could be a brute.

“Answer now! Relishing the moment? Your cold heart draws a special elixir for its sustenance from others’ misfortunes. Even your own children’s. So this must be a very special moment for you”.

“How dare you speak to me like that?” She hissed, “I detest that girl and I’m still willing to help you and bring her here against my better judgment. How dare you?”

Bilal could hear the cogwheels turning in Azhar’s mind. He knew his brother like he knew himself. Or may be better.

“Ami!” He said, trying to keep it calm, “I don’t think we should be speaking about a woman in that manner especially someone who is going to be a part of this family”.

She turned to him. The son with the newly-found voice.

“Well, well, look who’s coming to his brother’s defense. The underdog. People collect stray animals and give them a good life. I gave birth to four strays, each a bigger disappointment. Each too eager to fight the other’s battles”.

“If we are strays”, Azhar said, his tone matching his mother’s to the last decibel, “Then what does it say about you?”

Thunder rose in her face. Like father, like son. Their father also liked to curse and abuse her freely. He addressed her in derogatory slurs and made love to her speaking the same slurs throughout. He was turned on by filth and he expressed through filth too. Why would his son be any different?

“I’m warning you”, she said, her hazel eyes flashing, “I’m warning you, Azhar, I will do to you worse than what I did to Bilal. Watch me!”

Not for nothing no one baited Azhar. He had anger that destroyed most things in its path. Except Bilal. Bilal was his weakness and his biggest strength. And he was Bilal’s self-appointed protector.

His lower lip quivered and his eyes showed the red streaks that they usually demonstrated in times of intense anger and fury. He balled his fists, walked up as close to her as he could, breathed in her face deliberately.

She watched his beautiful face contort into Sabir’s. The same flared nostrils, the same ruddy cheeks, the same tense veins in his long neck. She hated him in that moment. Even Azhar, her favorite son, had unquestionable signs of Sabir and his genes. Her golden boy wasn’t sometimes as golden as she would like him to be.

He was the son who saved her when she needed saving but he was still just as nasty and filthy as the rest of them. His language was obscene when he was angered, his visage disgusting.

“Tie my shoe laces”, someone screamed in her ear.

Nighat, 18 years old, quivered like a leaf. She was a tall, strapping girl and was carrying her first child. Her belly was huge and even though she knew she’d have to obey him eventually, she shifted her weight uncomfortably, waiting for him to sense that she was not feeling well enough to sit on the floor.

Sabir, who didn’t miss two seconds between a command and its execution, grabbed her hair and pulled her. For a small, tiny man, he had the power of Herculean proportions. He forced her down until she sat lower and was tying his laces.

She knew it wasn’t over. He undid the laces and had her tie them again. Over and over. Over and over. Until she was exhausted and asked for mercy. Apologized for a fault that she hadn’t made.

Satisfied with her slave-like demeanor and his supposed taming of her, he left the room.

She spent the whole morning dealing with false contractions that had kicked in full force.

“Answer me NOW”, he yelled in her face, his face not even a full inch away from hers.

No, she thought, this isn’t why I have grown old with that horrid man. This is my turn. This is my round.

“Son”, she said, calm and in control, “I would like to speak with you when you feel better. And I should have to feel better too. So I suggest we both cool off. I have told you before! Animals will not be tolerated in this house”.

Azhar kept advancing towards her even though there was hardly any space between them now.

“Ami!” Bilal finally spoke up, “I think you have to stop enjoying misery. That makes you a very miserable person”.

She moved her eyes to her least favorite son, someone she had never thought much of, standing shoulder to shoulder with his brother. This was the second time Bilal had spoken for Azhar.

She smirked,

“I’m touched. What brotherly display of solidarity! But we wouldn’t be here if you spoke up earlier and saved all of us the pain and embarrassment that approaching that whore would bring on us”.

But she didn’t know she was dealing with a Bilal who was unrecognizable to his own self!

“And what would that speaking up entail, Ami? What is it that I could speak up about that would save us all the trouble now?”

She hesitated to go through with her threat. Bilal had become dangerous and she was fast realizing that he didn’t care what he lost.

She opened her mouth to speak when she heard him speak again,

“But before I speak up about people of fragile characters, let’s start where it all began. Let’s start there. Let’s start from a place that you and I both lived and feared. Until we speak about that, we cannot speak about other women whom you suspect to have questionable behavior”.

The blood drained from her face. She had never done well with threats and blackmail, Sabir’s preferred modus operandi. She hated them both, her sons, so like their father.

“Very well”, she said, finally settling for a truce, “Since you both are in cahoots as always, I’ll take your leave”.

She turned at the door,

“And you”, Azhar looked up knowing that she was addressing him “should pray to God that any woman gives her daughter to you when you land on her doorstep like a Lone Ranger”.

She made to move then stopped again,

“Or” sarcasm dripping from every syllable, “Take this clown with you. I hope your two-man show is a better success in the world outside than it has been in this house”.

“Ugh”, Azhar said disgustedly to her retreating back.

“What’s going on? Why isn’t she picking up the phone?”

“I don’t know, man”, Azhar said wearily. “I just want to sleep now”.

Bilal left him an hour later after discussing several possibilities. Azhar called Tanya again but she didn’t pick up.

He went to their roof. They lived in an upscale neighborhood and houses were extremely pretty here. Their neighbors all had colonial style houses and at night when the tiny lights came out on their porches, the whole neighborhood bathed in a soft glow.

She had another number. A number she used only for him. It was her way to keep it a secret from her family. He pulled it up and called from his new number.

“Hello”, the most beautiful voice in the world said.

“Tanya!”

Suddenly no distance had ever come between them.

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