In the name of love and all things related, Nighat had to surrender. And so one fine evening, she called Asma.
“Hello! Mrs. Tariq?”
“Yes, hello! Who’s this?”
“This is Nighat, Azhar’s mom”.
Asma was silent for a few seconds.
“Hi Nighat! How are you?”
“I’m okay. I wanted to come to your place some day to talk about Tanya and Azhar”.
“Tanya and Azhar?”
“Don’t you know?”
“No. What’s going on?”
“I’ll let you speak with Tanya first then”, Nighat said, regaining her power back in this whole mess that she had become a part of extremely reluctantly, “May be I’ll call back tomorrow?”
She hung up.
Tanya heard her door opening with a bang.
“I have no idea what’s going on. That woman called me. His mother. And asked me for you for her oldest son. What’s going on? What the hell is going on?”
Tanya had never seen her mother so angry. Her face had a thousand thunders raging in there and she didn’t care how loud she was.
“Mama!” Tanya began, but Asma cut her off.
“Tell me! What dignity is left for me in this that you want to strip me of that also? You had a premarital relationship. Only God knows how far you went with him in the two years that you were together. And now you’re cavorting with his brother. Bilal’s brother? How shameless are you and how shameless is this moronic brother that he’s proposing to the same girl that his brother ditched years ago? What’s going on?”
“He doesn’t know”, Tanya said, “Azhar doesn’t know. He doesn’t know I’m the girl who dated Bilal”.
“He doesn’t know?” Asma’s voice that was deafening a minute ago now became eerily quiet, “Azhar doesn’t know? So besides being these brothers booty call you are also dishonest and a liar? Where do you get the nerve to do this?”
Tanya didn’t say anything. She stared at the wall ahead of her and thought this through one more time.
Dignity! It’s an elusive word, Mama! Something that others have. Something that girls who get their first love have. I am a scorned woman so dignity was hard to get. But I did get a glimpse of it with Azhar. Can I say that it’s nice to be needed again and wanted again with a lot of respect for me in a man’s eyes who knows my past?
She noticed her mother was crying. She felt tears coming on too.
“Mama!” She said kneeling next to Asma, “Azhar is a gem of a person. But I have thought about it. He can’t know about my past. For one, he will probably die if he is told that. For another, he won’t accept me and I can’t take a second rejection”.
Between hiccups she saw her oldest child’s painful expression. Tanya had changed. She was barely recognizable but the last few months she had had a purpose. Azhar had become a purpose and Tanya had regained some of her spirit. Asma couldn’t deny that.
“What if he finds out some day? What if his mother tells him? Think about it. It is going to be a disaster. What if Bilal tells him?”
“I’ve thought about it all”, she said carefully, “Mama! Azhar needs me and if truth be told, I need him too. I can be myself with him. He knows about a previous relationship that I had. He has been accepting still”.
“I don’t know why ANYONE has to know about a previous relationship”, Asma said, exasperated.
Tanya looked at her upright mother who didn’t see the problems that non-disclosure of a relationship would lead to. Sure she didn’t owe anyone any explanation about what happened before them but Azhar was different. She owed a lot to him. Then you should owe him the whole truth, a tiny voice said. She ignored it.
“Mama! Please let me have Azhar. I haven’t had anything to call my own in the last so many years.”
“Do you love him?”
“No. Not like a woman loves a man. But I love him like a friend. And if ever he finds out that I loved Bilal once then I’ll take the consequences.”
“You know the consequences could be devastating, right?”
“I know. But if love can be as devastating as I know it then distance has every right to be that”.
He couldn’t believe it. Asma had called and invited them over. It was surreal and even though he could sense that Ami was struggling with her narcissism dealing with her urge to do what was best for him, he was thankful that she was at least acting happy.
“Are you happy now?” Bilal asked, sitting next to him at the mosque after Fajr.
Azhar looked at him. He had, if it was possible, been praying harder now.
“I’m happy and scared”.
“I feel like something is going to come between us and I’ll lose everything”.
He felt sorry for him. His brother who used to be full of life, who had practically raised him, was now scared of life.
“Bilal! You like Tanya, right?”
“Yes! She’s great.”
“Yes. I can’t wait for the day when we all have kids and they become best friends. Even Hashir and Aman’s kids would be allowed to play with our kids”, Azhar said magnanimously.
Bilal laughed. Azhar normally considered Hashir and Aman someone else’s brothers.
“Even Hashir and Aman’s?” He asked with an amused expression.
“Yes, because they’re mutts”.
The brothers laughed at the joke, talking about the youngest two and how they had had it all made and never had to receive any bad beatings from Ami or Abu while growing up and never even had to see any tutors because the oldest two had always taught them exclusively.
“But I didn’t have to go to any tutors either”, Bilal reminded him, “You always helped me”.
“Oh you were a breeze”, Azhar said with a wave of his hand, “Never had any problems with you. And remember how we always ended up talking about unrelated stuff”.
“Yes like BayWatch”, Bilal said laughing, “Gosh! We have so many stories to tell Tanya”.
“And Maha”, Azhar said instantly, “Maha is ours too. She’s our team member. Don’t let her get on Ami’s team, man”.
“And Maha too”, Bilal said, “Except she’d be sleeping through most of it”.
Azhar laughed loudly as they put their shoes on and exited the mosque.
“But Maha isn’t so bad”, Bilal said after thinking for a while if he should let his brother know of his growing feelings for his wife, “She is alright”.
“She’s better than alright, man”, Azhar said, “She gave us Hamza and she made our family bigger and”, he said, becoming emotional, “She’s the only sister I know”.
“One thing that we have to do when Tanya gets here”, Bilal said, pretending to be thinking of a huge plan, “is have enough sex with you so you can stop crying like a girl each time something happens”.
“You’re an ass hole, really”, Azhar said while bringing his massive hand down on Bilal’s back and having Bilal buckle under it, “Strong men cry too. Remember how much we cried when we were kids and Abu would constantly refer to us as girls. And we are strong men, aren’t we? You won’t find two manlier men anywhere else”.
“Azhar! You’re a great guy but way too full of yourself”.
“So I’ve been told”.
They kept walking, bantering and laughing.
“Promise me one thing, Bilal”, he said seriously.
“What? That I won’t peek when you’re having sex all wrong?”
“I’m serious, promise me!”
“You have my word, man! I won’t tell her about the chemistry teacher whose dress you looked up all the time”.
“I’m serious, Bilal , I’ll punch you out if you don’t listen”.
“Guessing how much you’ve been eating, I’m not ready to take the punch. Spit it out”.
“We can’t ever be distant”, Azhar said seriously, stopping in his tracks, holding Bilal’s right shoulder and making him stop too. “We can’t ever drift apart, Billu, just because we are married. Because I’ve seen it happen. Many times. Many many times”.
He stared at his older brother and thought of the most dangerous game in the world that awaited them all to unfold. Would you still love me, Azhar, if you found out that I loved Tanya like no one ever will? Would you still love me? Because if I could, I would erase my past with her, just to have you always as my brother. I fear that if you found out I’d lose you and won’t ever get you back.
He smiled sadly and hugged Azhar,
“I’ll always be your brother, Azhar. If ever you want to hate me, just give me a chance to explain”.
Azhar, who looked for reasons to hug his little brother who had become so busy with work and parenthood and being a married man, hugged him tighter,
“I can never hate you. Are you kidding me? You’re a piece of my heart. No one, not even Tanya, is what you are. Not even Hamza is what you are. Not even me to myself is what you are to me. So if ever you feel that we have any distance between us, just come and hug me and we will be fine”.
“Are you available tomorrow?” He typed.
“Ami is coming on Friday to talk to your mom”.
“Okay then what’s tomorrow?”.
“You ask way too many questions”.
“Okay where can I pick you up?”
“I’m picking you up”.
“Bilal gave me a crash course last week”.
“Let’s not call it a crash course please”.
“Haha! Very funny”.
“4 in the evening”.
“Where are we going?”
“You know, Tanya, until we get married you’re not allowed to ask me any questions”.
“That’s a great incentive to get married as soon as possible”.
“Good one. You’ll get better with good jokes, I promise. Even now you’ve graduated from pathetic to tolerable”.
“Thanks, Azhar, what would I do without you 🙄?”
“What would I do without you ❤️?”
“I’ll see you tomorrow”.
“InshAllah. Always say InshAllah”.
He picked her up a little after 4 and was pleasantly surprised to see that she had dressed up with a little attention to herself.
“Someone looks really nice without their old jeans”, he said, taking her in and wanting to stop time.
“Thanks. Wish I could say the same about you”, she teased him.
“I don’t look nice?” He immediately turned the rear view mirror to face himself and grinned at his reflection, “Oh Lord! Why am I so good looking that people get jealous?”
Tanya laughed. He could be really goofy and endearing.
He looked at her and like it always did when they were together, time stood still and let them not worry about anything else.
She was wearing a red shalwar kameez, the traditional outfit that Pakistani women wear, with gentle green embellishments around the neck line. She normally didn’t wear a dupatta but today she had one on and it was slipping all over and kept her busy as she tried to push it back on her shoulders every few seconds. Her eyes had a lot of kohl, something that she never did unless she had had a long overnight call and didn’t want to look too tired the following day. She wore a light blush on her cheeks and had on a slightly brighter shade of a pink lipstick than what she usually wore.
He noticed she wore jhumkas a lot and was wearing gold ones today. They kept moving even when she wasn’t and sparkled on their own.
She wished he said something nice to take the edge off. She had had a lot of trouble dressing up for Azhar but since she could tell that this was an important day, she had put in the effort. Her entire existence still revolved so much around Bilal that her need to make new memories was almost desperate.
What am I doing with him, she wondered. I’m promising him happiness that I don’t have, love that I already gave to someone and marriage that will be hard to have with my former lover under the same roof.
Ah life! She felt like crying! It’s asking me for another sacrifice in exchange for a promise of some love, some redemption and I’m willing to give myself up for that promise again.
“Tanya”, he began huskily, “If you knew the effect you had on me, you’d call yourself a witch”.
She blushed. If he knew the effect he had on her, he’d know why she was choosing him. He represented safety and companionship. She wanted to kiss him and make love to him if that’s what people did in exchange for someone saving their life.
“Wanna start driving or just have my sister be our personal paparazzi?” She laughed.
Azhar immediately came to.
“Who, Sarah ? Where’s she?”
Tanya pointed to a window in her house where someone’s round face was eagerly watching them.
“Hi Sarah”, Azhar waved. “I’ll be your wingman, I promise.” He blew her a kiss and they saw the curtains promptly snapping close.
“Where are we going?” She asked curiously.
“There’s a place”, he said quietly, “where people make promises of being together forever and most make their promises come true also”.
He looked at her and smiled mysteriously.
“If you ask more questions, I’ll have to blindfold you”.
She smiled too, content to just be riding with him.
She realized they were on a familiar route and kinda knew where they were going.
By the time they got there it was six in the evening and the sun had settled in a deep crevice in the sky and only sent select rays down. Rays that were warmer and gentler. That added to the glow that love had introduced back in their bereft lives.
They got out of their car outside Dow Medical College . Azhar took her hand and walked inside, his limp causing him to walk even more cautiously on the pebbled floor. She walked next to him patiently, a little bubble of excitement bursting inside her and slowly claiming her whole being.
They walked past the basketball courts. She remembered sitting in the bleachers with him, commenting on all the players, some awesomely good and some there just to prove their manhood, Azhar and Tanya commenting on the lack of finesse and comparing them to Michael Jordan and laughing at their own lame comparisons.
They went up the steps to walk by the library staircase, Azhar stopping there once to comment on one particularly haughty girl that he thought looked like Mila Kunis and then laughing at himself for always imagining Hollywood women in Pakistani girls.
They went down the steps to enter the cricket pitch and she was reminded of all the times he had samosas with her in front of the pitch, across the volley ball court, sitting outside the Main Auditorium and trying to stay out of the circumference of the swinging ball.
They walked steadily past all of it, then went around Arag Auditorium, the largest lecture hall at the back of Dow, isolated and usually haunted by nerds and recluses.
He let her hand go, stood in front of her and said urgently,
“You can’t look, okay? Don’t look until I say, okay?”
“Azhar….” she objected.
“No, Tanya! This is nothing big or amazing. Someone amazing should’ve had you and done something so out of this world that you’d have remembered your proposal for decades. Someone should have arranged for sky writing or a huge party or a celebration of a lifetime when they proposed but this isn’t that big. But it is for me. For a man who found his life at Dow and Civil, nothing measures up to these two places. Nothing!”
She had heard girls cried when they were proposed. But she didn’t cry. She didn’t want to cry. She had cried so much at the deception of love that crying had become associated with sadness only. She watched Azhar as he busied himself with something that she couldn’t quite see.
After a minute or two he came forward and saw her with her eyes open,
“You were supposed to not look”, he complained.
“Even if I tried I couldn’t see anything”, she said. “What is it, Azhar? Can I see it now?”
“Don’t make fun of it, okay?”
“I promise I won’t”.
He led her to an area that he had cleared in the middle of the overgrown plants and she saw a cupcake, the daintiest thing in the world, surrounded by rose petals. There were three candles in a lovely candle stand, burning as brightly as his eyes were shining.
She had promised herself that she won’t give in to the tears but they were choking her.
Just when she had thought she didn’t deserve any happiness, it had all come to her.
So it wasn’t Bilal, she thought sadly but with more closure than she had ever had, but it was the next best person.
Allah forgave me, she rejoiced.
“What’s that?” She asked, suddenly noticing a tripod with his phone on it.
“I’m making a movie of our proposal to show to our kids”.
Tanya snorted. He was truly a software engineer, one in a million.
“Some might say a third eye is not really conducive to privacy”, she reminded him.
“Some might say their kids would appreciate these tips that their dad ran crazy for, for a whole week”. He said proudly.
“I don’t know, Azhar,” she said, coming close to him. “I don’t deserve any of it”.
He looked at her, the same knowing look that she had received so many times from him. Like he knew her more than she knew herself.
“Come on”, he said gently, “It’s just about us today. Azhar and Tanya”.
“Azhar and Tanya”, she repeated, “I like the sound of that”.
They went over to the little cupcake and Azhar pulled her over to him as she tried to put some distance between them.
“Get close. Tanya! You’re a prude”, he scolded lovingly.
Peace came over her. I believe you raised your brothers, Azhar, you are so much like a soul whisperer.
“Okay kids!” Azhar said, addressing the camera, “you can watch now because this is a PG-5 moment. I say PG-5 because your mom and I are always going to be kissing and cuddling with each other so get used to it”.
“Today I’m proposing to your mom. She’s the best thing in the whole world. She is honest, truthful and makes me the best version of myself. If I hadn’t found her, I wouldn’t have found any happiness. She’s my biggest treasure. Mommy!” He turned to her, “You wanna say something too?”
“Okay”, she started cautiously, deciding to play along, “Your dad” giggles, “is the best guy in the whole world. He came to me when I was desperately looking for an anchor and a friend. And somehow he became my life. He brings out the best in me and makes me thank my stars everyday”.
She realized she had choked on some of her words. But the giggles wouldn’t stop. Azhar laughed too.
“You’re a strange one”, he looked at her with warmth and a world of promise, “cut your cake and let’s mark this moment”.
“Where’s the knife?” She asked.
He rolled his eyes,
“Eat it, dumbo, and I’ll eat half of it. Haven’t you heard that sharing food causes love to grow?”
He looked at the camera,
“I want you guys to take notes instead of waiting for something to happen here while you’re watching. I’ll be turning off the camera in a bit”.
The giggles came over again.
She ate some of it and then offered it to him. Together they finished the cupcake. It had a red heart plastered on it that Azhar ate whole because according to him “no broken hearts ever again”.
He turned off the camera.
“Wanna see your ring?” He asked casually.
She could feel her pulse racing, tiny drops of sweat appeared on her gorgeous face that was lit pink with the slowly advancing evening.
“I’d love to”, she managed.
He rummaged in his pocket and then pulled out a ring.
Her heart stopped.
She had casually remarked a year ago how celebrity rings were to die for. She had joked that the ring alone would be worth getting married for. They were flipping through some TV guides and Azhar had pointed out Jessica Alba’s toned body and Tanya had said that she didn’t notice the body as Jessica’s ring kept taking her attention.
“No, Azhar”, she said, tears threatening to spill and her heart trying to detach herself from falling in love again, “I can’t take this. This must have cost you everything. Our ring doesn’t have to be so expensive and elaborate”.
He took her left hand, slipped it on her ring finger and examined it.
It was a delicate ring with a single canary yellow diamond, one of the most precious varieties, surrounded by smaller clear diamonds, set in a gold frame. The yellow diamond was exactly like the one Jessica Alba had and sparkled so brightly that Tanya was momentarily blinded.
“Tanya!” He said, admiring his work of passion and nonstop search that he had conducted for a full week, “Even though this ring is phenomenal, your hand…… it’s just beautiful. Nothing could stand out on it, it’s so lovely. Why are you so beautiful?”
Why’re you so amazing, she thought, why is my heart scared again of losing someone I’m starting to call my own?
“How do you feel about marrying me?” He said, putting his arms around her and pulling her closer.
“I think”, she said, looking in his gray eyes and wondering how he’d be in bed, “that’s the best idea we’ve ever had”.
His head came down and his lips reached for hers. She surrendered more readily today, feeling like she belonged to him. He explored her mouth slowly, then more urgently, and finally softly.
Her hands ran in his hair, finally resting on the back of his neck. She tried to get closer but couldn’t. He pulled her in and she finally settled in a spot between his legs, and snuggled as close as she could.
Giving up to Azhar wasn’t like giving up to Bilal, she realized. Azhar was gentler and more loving. His gestures weren’t of a lover. He loved more like a friend and someone who didn’t fight with time to get all his moves in. Bilal was rebellious in his passion. Azhar was patient. While Bilal was wild and assertive, Azhar was calm and careful almost. She had loved Bilal for his uninhibited display of emotion. Somehow her yearning for Azhar came from the exact opposite.
His mouth moved to her neck and she willingly let him. Are first kisses any indication of sexual chemistry? She wondered. She had heard that the kiss gives away all that you need to know about sexual dynamic. She felt like she didn’t quite have that with Azhar but it felt like she could build it with him.
“Tanya”, he began huskily as she tried to stop him from going any further, “You know we have to get married as soon as we can, right? I can’t take it anymore”.
“I know”, she said, pulling his head up and looking in his eyes, “I need you too, Azhar, I know I don’t say it enough”.
“I know”, he said, wisely, “I’m not in a rush to hear everything from you as soon as I say it. Take all the time you need”.
She kissed his lips.
“You’re a good kisser”, she said, loving his arms around her.
“Thanks”, he grinned roguishly, “I wanted to ask but didn’t want to be told that I was suffocating you with my bad breath”.
She laughed and continued to laugh. Finally he laughed loudly too.
“You make me laugh so much”, she finally caught her breath.
“You make me laugh too, in other ways”, he said pulling a lock of her hair.
It was a gesture so reminiscent of Bilal and how he tugged at her hair that for a moment she was lost in her past. Then she realized that this was another good thing from her past. Azhar was all things good from her past and all things good from the present.
“Did you like it?” He asked her, pointing at her ring.
“I love it”, she said quietly, again examining it on her hand and marveling at how it made her hand look so beautiful. “But Azhar, it looks and feels and actually is very expensive. I know”.
“I wanted to tell you yesterday but didn’t want to give anything away. I got a job. An actual job where I go to work, sit in an office. It’s not medical informatics but it’s a job and will pay our bills. Allah is very kind. I forget that He is very kind. So I asked them if I could get an advance and I told them I had to get the one thing for my fiancé that would mean so much to her. So they gave me an advance. And then I was short for most of the money so I asked Bilal. He asked me to return the advance and loaned me the whole money. He was the only one I took with me to get it. Ami wanted to come with me but it was a sacred moment and I couldn’t share it with anyone except Bilal. His innocence had to touch our moment in some way, Tanya! So I’m glad it was his money. I’ll return it to him over six months. I didn’t want to tell you but you asked and you look worried that it’s so expensive so I want you to not feel any way about it. And wait! Let me show you something”.
He took his phone from the tripod and showed her a picture of him and Bilal, in the jewelry store, carrying the ring box like a trophy and smiling like the two goofy brothers that they were.
Her eyes filled with tears at how her life had crossed over with Bilal’s anyway. It had taken ages to get over him and she finally had. It felt good to still be able to call him family.
She took his face in her hands and examined the most gorgeous man in the world. She couldn’t believe he was hers.
Before they knew it, she had given in to the complete barrage of emotions and kissed him, Azhar holding her tighter as they tried to get closer, the heavens looking down at love happening again, Tanya’s ring catching the sun and sparkling like the sun itself while the birds around them chirped louder as they returned home.
She wondered what she was doing sitting here.
Many people had represented enmity to her. Sabir had. He was the worst enemy ever known to a woman.
Her mother-in-law hadn’t been kind either. She had turned a blind eye to all the atrocities and actually had justified them.
The only people in this world who had always had her back were her parents.
But not Ami, she corrected herself, she never protected me.
But someone must have stopped Sabir. Who did? Who knew?
And now Tanya represented enmity to her. She threatened to take Azhar from her.
Asma entered and Nighat returned from her past. Asma smiled at her. Nighat was shocked to see how young Asma looked.
Nighat had preferred to come alone even though Bilal had insisted that he should come with her. She didn’t want any witnesses to how she was going to impress her superiority in this relationship with Tanya and thought it best that she was by herself.
“Do you know we live very close to here?” She asked Asma.
“Actually I do”, Asma smiled, unassuming and simple. “We moved here when Tanya’s dad developed some health problems. His practice was close to this place”.
“He was a Doctor, right?”
“Yes. A family physician. We thought Tanya would inherit his practice but when he passed away she was taking her third year exams and so was a long way off…..”
“So how do you manage financially?” Nighat cut her off unceremoniously.
Asma was momentarily nonplussed. She had some idea of how blunt and rude this woman could be but didn’t count on it to start right away.
“Tariq made a lot of money in his practice, since you asked. I mean,” she paused before deciding to be just as crass as this woman, “this land alone is over a thousand thousand rupees”.
Nighat was quiet. She realized that her comment hadn’t gone over well and instead of being embarrassed, Asma had used it to make a point.
“I’m sorry,” she said, making a good enough show of being apologetic, “I shouldn’t have asked”.
“I don’t mind”, Asma shrugged, “You’re just asking what a lot of people might be thinking”.
Their house help came in with food on a tray and left it on the coffee table.
Asma looked at it and said,
“Zahida! Where’s Tanya?”
“Okay”, then she turned to Nighat, “let me get her. She was almost ready. Not sure what happened”.
Nighat looked at the food on the table and realized that she had no appetite.
She had come here to mock and gently ridicule these people. She even hoped that Tanya would back off but Tanya was her mother’s daughter. That was for sure. Strong and confident!
She took this time to examine the living room more closely. It was an exquisite display of taste even though was very simple in essence. There was a beige-colored sofa in the center of the living room. It had a darker beige throw sprawled on the back and four pillows of varying shades of beige, all chicly thrown around on the sofa. There were two darker blue chairs, each with upholstered seats and wooden handles, a beautiful pattern of flowers and leaves running on the side of these wooden handles. There were two large pillows, the same beige as the sofa, on each chair, strangely coordinating with the sofa and creating an effect that was expensive yet simple.
There were two large lamps, that stood against the two largest walls and there were some fresh plants in the room too. She had never seen people decorate their formal spaces with fresh plants and somehow, the sight of them made her want to get up and touch them.
As she walked over to the plants, the expensive Persian carpet feeling like silk under her feet, she heard commotion behind her and saw Tanya and Asma entering.
Tanya gave a warm smile. Somehow Tanya looked nice to her today. She didn’t look nervous or haughty or timid. She looked like a woman who had been through time and now waited to be rescued from the tossing of the waves.
She smiled at Tanya, then because she couldn’t keep from asking the question, she blurted out,
“Tanya! What plants are these? They’re beautiful”.
Tanya smiled and came over,
“This one”, she pointed to a smaller plant with green and white leaves, “is a Varigated Monstera”.
“It’s beautiful”, Nighat whispered in awe.
“It is”, Tanya agreed, “I got it from the USA. It’s very rare”.
“Can I get it too?”
“We can get a bit from here and plant it wherever you like. It takes quickly”.
She moved to the next one.
“And which one is this? It’s just breath taking”.
Tanya smiled again,
“You have an excellent eye for rare plants. This is a blue succulent. It’s a Witchford Lithops”.
“Yes! That’s pretty blue. It gives off blue flowers. Are you a plant fan?”
She stared at her soon to be daughter-in-law. She had come here to hate her some more but she had collected rare plants and given them a beautiful home.
Am I a plant fan, she asked herself! I don’t know, Tanya! I have never been so important to myself or others to really know if I like something or just occupy my time with them because they never beat me up brutally or talk back at me.
“I am”, she smiled gently. “I love them”.
“Then you’d like our vegetable patch and our flower garden”, Tanya said excitedly. “Wanna see them?” She said, already going towards the door and expecting Nighat to follow suit.
“Tanya!” Asma said, “Nighat needs to talk and eat. Please don’t impose your love and craze for plants on her”.
“But I’d love to see it”, Nighat said, like a child, “there’s nothing more I’d like to do”.
“Mama!” Tanya said, pouting a little, “why can’t we eat and talk in the garden?”
Asma hurried after them.
“Nighat! Are you ready to take this imp on?”
“Anyone who loves plants is a special person”, Nighat said and was amazed at her own warmth.
They spent two hours in the garden, exploring and talking and looking up plants on Tanya’s iPad. Nighat had never enjoyed herself as much as she did that day. Tanya’s younger siblings joined, Sarah, Sanam and Ali and they all chattered around Nighat endlessly and without reserve.
She left at 11 in the night after having dinner. Asma and she didn’t get to talk about any formal proposal but it was implied and Nighat didn’t seem to be in the mood for anything except plants.
Azhar was desperately waiting for her.
“Ami”, he shouted almost as she got down from her car, “Where have you been? We called. We texted. We were so worried. What happened? Was everything okay?”
“So many questions”, she said coming forward and smiling from ear to ear. She patted his cheek affectionately.
“I was worried, Ami”, he said, surprised at her obvious happiness.
She smiled at him, kissed him lightly on his forehead and went inside.
“How come my mom came back smiling from your place?” He typed.
“I have that effect on people”, she typed back.
“Okay, real quick, wanna come for your dress shopping with us?”
“No” she typed, “I’m happy with anything your mom chooses”.
“I’m choosing your outfit”.
“Oh God help me”.
“Tanya! You’re a bad person to be scared of my taste”.
“Can I see you tomorrow?”
“You can see me any time you want”, she typed.
“I’ll pick you up at five. I have to show you something”.
He picked her up. He had called ahead and asked her to wear a royal blue shalwar kameez that he had gifted her a few days ago. He had seen it in a store window and bought it on impulse for her.
She came out, wearing the outfit and he felt his breath leaving his body.
It was an ordinary outfit really with a long shirt and chooridar pants. It wasn’t formal but when he saw it on Tanya, somehow it looked formal and he decided instantly to take her somewhere nice for dinner.
She sat in the car. She hadn’t worn any jewelry and Azhar was quick to notice.
“Where’s your ring?”
She took it out of her purse and put it on.
“It’s so precious”, she explained, “I don’t parade it”.
“Okay”, he said, trying to understand why she wouldn’t wear it and flaunt it, “Where are your earrings?”
“This outfit looked so nice, I thought I shouldn’t overdo it”.
“Open that”, he pointed towards the dash board.
She opened it. He reached over and scrambled in there for a few seconds, then withdrew a pair of silver earrings.
“Put these on”, he said assertively.
“Oh, Azhar”, her heart melted at the sight of the beautiful earrings, “Who do these belong to?”
“I got these for you last week then forgot all about them”, he said carelessly, backing his car out of her driveway.
For some reason, the gesture caught her in an emotional moment. She had never been cared for. She had always been the carer. For her family, for Bilal, for her patients. Azhar made her feel cared for.
“What happened?” He touched her face and moved his hand in her hair, “You didn’t like them?”
She shook her head then said abruptly,
“I’m not used to people thinking about me or investing any time in me.”
“Come here”, he took his left hand off the steering wheel and pulled her in, “I’ll always care for you. Don’t become sad at small things. It’s ingratitude. Allah doesn’t like it. Do you want to make Him unhappy?”
“No”, she shook her head.
He kissed her hair as her head rested on his chest for the rest of the way.
She suspected he had brought her here to show her her wedding outfit but they walked past most of the bridal stores and ended up in the back of the shopping mall.
“Where are we going?” She asked, bemused at the constant silent walking.
“Okay, wait! Let’s talk about it.”
She stopped. It was a darker alleyway with the mall on one side and miscellaneous shops and businesses on the other.
“Where do you wanna go for our honeymoon?”
“Honeymoon?” She asked bewildered.
“Yes. Honeymoon. People go for it after their wedding…”
“I know what it is”, she interrupted him, “We will go too?”
“Are we getting married?”
“Are we in love with each other?”
“Well, you’re in love with me….”
“Uh oh! That was apparently the magic buster that you shouldn’t have answered”.
“Azhar! Where are we going to get the money from?”
“Okay! I didn’t return the advance I got on my salary. I’m using it for our honeymoon”.
“Azhar!!!” She rebuked him lovingly. “No……”
“Tanya, please”, he said firmly, “We have to”.
“Okay but I have a condition too”.
“Is this the travel agent?”
“We will go through the packages and will pick out the cheapest one”.
“No. We will pick out the prettiest one”.
“No way! We will pick out the cheapest one. Azhar!” She took his face in her hands. She realized she was standing on tiptoes to reach his face. The alley was dark and no one was in sight. “Anywhere with you is going to be the prettiest place for me”.
He immediately put his hands around her. The comfort and peace she brought was undeniable.
“Can I quickly kiss you?”
“Okay”, she giggled, “real quick”.
He claimed her full mouth very quickly, leaving her breathless even though it was just for a brief second.
An hour later they got back in their car with their honeymoon booked for Bali, Indonesia.
“Bilal! I will kill you if you don’t tell all these ass holes to be on time”. Azhar came down the stairs thundering and raging.
“Azhar! I would appreciate it if you didn’t call us names”, Hashir made a face.
“You guys deserve all the names in the world, especially you two losers”, he slapped him on the back.
“Bilal never acted the way you are”, Aman chimed in.
“Bilal is a nice guy”, Azhar said, rolling his eyes, “Don’t expect me to not kill you for being late”.
“Azhar”, Bilal yelled , “Make sure you don’t curse at us when Tanya is here”.
The wedding was in two days. He had been told to not see Tanya anymore but had FaceTimed with her every single night. According to Tanya it would be bad luck if they didn’t see each other. He had secretly shown her the wedding dress that Nighat had got her and the only thing that he hadn’t really shared with her was the ring that he had gotten as his first gift.
Nighat was in her element. Even though it was hard for her to like Tanya a lot, it was her darling son’s wedding and no expense was spared. She had personally gotten his sherwani stitched and even though he had insisted on a black sherwani, she had not agreed to it, citing black as a very somber color and convinced him for a deep blue sherwani that really looked black unless it was under a thousand watts of artificial light.
Azhar forfeited his outfit color.
But he didn’t take anyone with him, not even Bilal to pick out the wedding gift for Tanya.
He had scoured many jewelry stores. There was nothing, not one ring, that could be a sign of the biggest night of their existence. He had even looked at online catalogues and had liked absolutely none of the rings. Then he had asked a jeweler if he could design one and they had said yes.
So he had designed the prettiest ring that he had ever seen. It was a gold ring, 24 carats, with a single topaz placed centrally and a hundred cubic zirconia around it. It was the most beautiful ring with the topaz cut like a sunflower and the cubic zirconia gave the impression of a sea of gems around it. It had cost him a fortune and he didn’t even have so much money but then he had casually taken his Rolex and exchanged it for the ring on the spot without a second thought. Ami had given it to him as a graduation gift after completing his degree from NED.
Tanya’s outfits were delivered to her place two nights before the wedding. She called him immediately,
“I love it, Azhar! You have amazing taste. I couldn’t have picked out a more beautiful outfit if I had wanted”.
“I can’t wait to see you in it”, he said, picturing her in it.
“I can’t wait to wear it”, she whispered.
“Are you happy?”
“More than I ever thought was possible”.
“This time on Friday”, he said, “I’ll have you in my arms finally”.
She laughed softly,
“You’re forgetting that I’ve been in your arms”.
“Yes”, he said, “But never naked”.
Tanya burst out laughing. He laughed too.
“Okay promise me you won’t laugh in bed. When women do that, men become insecure”.
She snorted even louder.
They hung up after many minutes. It was their mehndi the next day and both of their houses were full of guests.
Bilal woke up before everyone the day of the mehndi. It was surreal to be celebrating Tanya’s wedding. He had prayed for closure and some last words after they had separated. He had never counted on spending his life with her, in the same house, as family, and still apart.
He walked to the garden and decided to get his bearings before it all started and everyone wanted him to laugh and eat and entertain and be merry. Just a little time at the tomb of love and broken hearts. A little soliloquy of sadness, in remembrance of the embers of burnt wishes.
Tanya! The only woman he had loved with an abandon that knew no limit. He had not just loved her. He worshipped the ground she walked. He had planned a life with her as far out as he could see. Then what happened? Why was he going to be at her wedding in the capacity of a guest?
What does Azhar have, he thought with some pain, that I didn’t have? Why did I surrender? Why do I care about Ami when she doesn’t give two hoots about me?
“You’re a bitch for bringing tea that’s so cold that I won’t even call it tea”. Sabir threw the cup of piping hot tea on Nighat. Bilal, five years old and playing right outside the room, waiting for Azhar to return from his tuition, ran to get his mother a towel. Her skin was fast becoming red on her abdomen and some of it had already shown blisters forming.
“Are you a bloody whore that you can’t iron clothes right? At least whores please their men in bed. You’re useless”, Sabir placed hot iron on Nighat’s back. Her screams were stifled by her own remarkable self-control. Tears ran down her face and she whimpered but no words came out.
“You have no idea who that man was, is that true?” He was interrogating her incessantly and Nighat phrased her innocence a new way each time.Bilal ran to get Azhar but Nighat’s grip around his wrist prevented him from doing anything. She told him sternly, “Don’t tell your brother anything ever. He will kill your father”.
Bilal knew Sabir timed his assaults when Azhar wasn’t around. May be he knew how weak Bilal was and how crazy in his anger Azhar was.
Why didn’t I save Ami ? He thought sitting in the lawn chair, tears streaming down his face as he relived his childhood. Why wasn’t Abu scared of me? I hate myself for never standing up to Abu.
He felt relieved for choosing Ami over Tanya. At least someone chose her. At least someone loved her even if she didn’t think anyone did.
Azhar and Tanya wore green for mehndi. Everyone else wore yellow, both traditional colors for mehndi.
Mehndi is the pre-wedding event. It’s lighter and sometimes considered an even more essential event than the wedding or the Valima. But because Tanya was already donating a percentage of her wedding savings from her mom’s side to a charitable organization, she had insisted that they have a very muted function. Asma had offered her giant home and so they had set everything up in the garden of their home.
They had hired a catering company who decorated and took care of the finer details and music also. There were about fifty guests and so the event itself wasn’t so elaborate.
Sometimes it was hard to enjoy Azhar’s wedding. Sometimes he missed the enthusiasm and sheer elation that he had always thought he’d experience at Azhar’s wedding. Sometimes the pain threatened to take his life. Sometimes his brother’s happiness made him jealous.
But Azhar was his life and had always been the most important person to him so it was natural to also catch some of the euphoria that he himself had infused in the atmosphere. Azhar was his old self again and that became the highlight of Bilal’s sacrifice.
He watched Maha as she dressed for the mehndi. Thanks for being honest, Maha ! His heart silently said. Thanks for being yourself. You don’t change yourself for anyone. Except maybe Ami. Ami changes you and sometimes that’s scary.
They left for Tanya’s place and since they lived so close they were soon there.
“I’m sweating, man”, Azhar whispered and he couldn’t help laughing.
“Don’t sweat now”, he whispered back, “Save some for tomorrow”.
“Which reminds me that I have to go over the wedding night stuff with you”, Azhar continued.
“I’ll tell you everything and if you pay me, I’ll direct you guys in the moment. I don’t want Tanya to put up with your bad sex moves….. ow ow ow”, he yelled as Azhar pinched him with all his strength.
“I didn’t mean that, you gigantic ass! Ami said I have to pay some money to our cousins and even Maha. Why do they need my money, man? I don’t have any”.
“It’s tradition”, he said and saw Azhar opening his mouth to object and added quickly, “You can just make me in charge and I’ll pay everyone off”.
“You’re a life saver, Billu”, he said fervently, “Now let’s talk about those sex pointers”.
They laughed together as the gate opened and Tanya’s cousins who had all flown in to be at the wedding greeted them loudly.
Azhar’s self-consciousness took over again. He hated limping and even though his feeding tube had not been removed for one reason or another so far, he didn’t mind that as much as the prominently halting gait that he had developed since the accident.
Just the idea of being someone who wasn’t whole took him over. He walked slowly, trying to minimize his limp as much as possible, and realizing that he was slowing everyone down.
Bilal was quiet. He knew what was going on. He didn’t rush Azhar or tried to push him, both things that his physical therapist did and Azhar hated. He patiently walked beside him and they approached the staging area.
Tanya had decorated it herself the night before. In the interest of having an economical wedding, she had taken the decor on herself and used jasmine and marigolds. The effect was simple but festive and even though, it didn’t look like an expensive stage, it was so Tanya that both Azhar and Bilal didn’t miss her hand in it.
They all settled and because people are usually boisterous and loud at Pakistani weddings, there was a cacophony of noise and laughter.
All Azhar could hear were a dozen or so young women addressing him and asking brazen, thinly veiled sexual questions about his thoughts about the life after their wedding. He smiled at most of them and seriously contemplated some. Did they expect an answer to all of them?
He felt peaceful. Even though he hated people watching him when he walked, the thought of having Bilal next to him and of Tanya coming out soon was soothing. He smiled patiently through it all, even when some well-meaning but unsophisticated people congratulated him for making it after a near death experience.
He looked up. Allah had been kind to him. Beyond his wildest imagination. He looked ahead of him and saw Nighat staring at him, looking distant and somehow, insignificant. She didn’t do well in new gatherings where she didn’t know where she stood in terms of her position and social stature and he could see she was struggling again. Most people found her confident but there was a truly vulnerable side to her that rarely made an appearance.
Ami! He said silently. Do you know that your vulnerable side is also your most endearing?
She finally smiled at him and came over to sit next to him.
“Is my son happy?” She asked as Bilal, Hashir and Aman bantered with the crowd of girls who surrounded the stage.
“I’m happy, Ami! And thank you for making it all possible”.
She kissed his forehead.
“When a mother loses her child to death for many days and finally wins him back, she does anything to keep sadness away from him”.
He saw a few tears in her eyes.
“Don’t cry, Ami!” He squeezed her hand. “We won’t ever have to cry. We will ask Allah for forgiveness everyday”.
She smiled her salty smile again and went back to sit at her seat as more young boys and girls started filling the stage.
Her heart was heavy. She had made peace with Tanya coming into Azhar’s life and she was okay with it most of the time. But sometimes she thought of how Tanya had the potential to separate him from her and it scared her.
Her eyes roved to her least favorite son. Why can’t I love him like he loves me? She wondered. I want to apologize to him for this. It must be hard for him to be here, watch Tanya become Azhar’s. It must be so hard for him. Inadvertently I committed a crime. But he didn’t even fight for her that much. Actually he fought more for her and Azhar. May be didn’t like her that much. Truth be told, Maha is so much better than Tanya. Tanya is, I don’t know what my sons saw in her, so average.
They were bringing Tanya out and there was a sudden uproar about her arrival and Nighat felt her pulse racing. She found it hard to like Tanya. Terribly hard! She could be a girl she casually knew but she was, by no means, the woman for her favorite son, her golden boy.
She finally came out. In a simple green outfit that was a cross between a deeper green and some bluish undertones. It was a simple cotton shalwar kurta with an exceptionally long kurta, paired with an even larger dupatta that covered most of her body. She had her head covered and had zero make up on. In her ears were the earrings that Azhar had rummaged for in his car dash board a few weeks ago.
She looked up and saw Bilal first of all. He was sitting next to Azhar and looking at her. The noise dimmed out. The lights faded. They were at the beach again, in each other’s arms, trying to get a fill of one another like they won’t be together again.
He had the same brownness to his eyes that drove her nuts in another time. He looked just the same as he did a few years ago but also looked very different due to a large amount of weight that he had gained battling with depression. She wanted to hug him and tell him she was okay. She wanted to know if he was okay. There was so much that had remained unsaid. There were so many moments that they had shared together with Azhar since the breakup then why was today so difficult?
Somehow Azhar’s accident had made them comfortable with each other’s presence and they had found a common mission. They had talked and laughed and shared things that they hadn’t before. But now that she thought about it, he had avoided her since the wedding had been in full swing.
But somehow he always stood out. Even though she was momentarily distracted by her past, he always stood out. The man who accepted her and loved her without any qualms. Who comforted her like she was his child. Who rallied for her when she was alone and usually sad to the point of dejection. Azhar always stood out. No one stood out like Azhar did.
She looked at him, looking at her with stars in his eyes, and she felt shy at her brazen sex talks with him the past few days. He winked at her, such an Azhar gesture of love and togetherness, that she couldn’t help blushing some more.
She walked, her step a little unsteady due to the sheer euphoria at seeing him, every inch the most handsome man at the party, and sat next to him.
He bent over, removed her dupatta to see her earrings and said,
“Do you know they were for two hundred rupees only?”
She smiled, looking at her feet.
“If you wanted to wear something that I got for you, why didn’t you say? I would’ve gotten something better”.
Struggling with her breath getting caught in her tears, she whispered as his perfume traveled on the air to her,
“There’s nothing better than these earrings in the whole world for me”.
He put an arm around her, another signature Azhar move, and pulled her closer.
The air around them exploded with catcalls and whistles.
“You looked beautiful”, he said over the phone later that night.
“Thanks. I wanted to put some make up on but Mama said that I shouldn’t. It looks cheap to be so dressed and done at a function that is so low-key”.
“You looked perfect”.
“Are you getting wedding jitters?” She asked.
“No. Why? I’m marrying my best friend”.
She contemplated asking him but then decided she had already kept many truths from him and decided to go ahead,
“Azhar! I don’t think your mother likes me”.
He was quiet. He didn’t like being a part of petty politics but he also knew that Tanya was not petty or political therefore said,
“She doesn’t. It would have been easy for me to lie to you but I can’t because when she doesn’t like someone she makes sure they know”.
I know, she thought savagely, that woman will someday have a lot of payback come her way.
“It’s okay”, she said, already aware of Azhar’s mercurial mood and hoping she hadn’t awakened the beast, “I really have a blindness when it comes to what people think about me so it doesn’t matter”.
“Hmm”, he said, lost in thought, “Can I ask you for something? Promise me you won’t decline my request”.
What does he want to know? She felt her breath quickening, her heart speeding up.
“I promise”, she said, more confidently than she felt.
“If you ever face any animosity or abuse or bad behavior in this house, you’ll tell me, okay? I hate this expectation that women will make it all better by putting up with it. If someone isn’t nice to you, let me know. The only person I can vouch for is Bilal. He has not one nasty bone in his body. But Abu can be a loose cannon at times. Hashir and Aman can cross their limit too. However, I’ll warn you about Ami. She can really have a vendetta against someone she feels some way about. So let me know”.
She was silent. She knew Nighat wasn’t friendly even though their last meeting in their garden had been a huge success but she had again been withdrawn and reserved at the mehndi and had barely gotten up from her seat.
“I’ll tell you, Azhar! Who else will I tell?”
“Good girl! I’m your guy if you need anything around this place”.
She laughed softly,
“Okay my guy! But promise me you won’t fight”.
“Oh I don’t fight”, he said causally, “I just make sure that the earth registers my point and the sky remembers it. I don’t fight”.
She had a sinking feeling that he fought dirty.
Their wedding day arrived and it was pure chaos but somehow Bilal managed to drop Azhar off at the place where Azhar had taken him for some last minute cleansing and grooming. He also got Azhar’s shoes from the shoe store in the morning. Azhar had been gaining weight steadily and his sherwani needed some last minute alterations. It was a sign of how much Azhar trusted him that he didn’t even give Bilal a list of anything and it all got done.
Finally it was seven o’clock and they were ready to leave.
There wasn’t one man in the whole world as handsome as her most beautiful son, Nighat thought with pride and love. He was strong as his mother, and had made it through death to reach back to life.
Bilal fussed over Azhar and tried to get his unruly hair.
“I will kill that son of a bitch”, he said, cursing the salon artist who was in charge of styling Azhar’s hair, “I’ll take all the money back tomorrow. Why did he not gel your hair and style it?”
“I don’t know, man”, Azhar said, not getting enough of his gorgeous reflection in the mirror and examining his eyes and mouth with critical appraisal, “Do you think my eye brows look good?”
“Damn your eye brows, stupid dog”, Bilal said, becoming exasperated at his hair that just won’t sit, “Why do you have so much hair?”
“Billu! You remember Natasha?”
“Who? That girl who had green eyes in NED?”
“No. That was Sobia. The girl who used to live across the street from our home when we were in college?”
“Oh yeah yeah”, Bilal finally caught on, “Nice legs, bad voice. I heard she works in PCSIR now. What about her?”
“Nothing. Just thought I’d go through my list of pretty girls before thinking about them would become a sin. PCSIR? She was a genius. Remember she used to do our math homework?”
They both laughed at the memories that they had made with each other.
“Azhar and Bilal! There will be time to talk about mundane stuff. Please get in the car now”. Sabir was at the door.
“I’m fixing his hair”, Bilal explained.
“Don’t interrupt, Abu, like we didn’t interrupt you at your wedding”, Azhar said, throwing a mischievous look at his father.
“I’m asking nicely the last time. Bilal!” Sabir barked, “No one cares about Azhar’s hair”.
“Abu!” Azhar rolled his eyes, “Tanya wants me to look nice”.
“Let me tell you something. Marriage never brought anyone any happiness. It ruins everything. I had thought my sons would marry wisely. Bilal married a pauper. Azhar married a woman who is an orphan. I didn’t raise you right if these are the life decisions that you’re taking”.
Bilal was used to Sabir’s diatribe but Azhar hadn’t heard it much or in reference to marriage. He stared at Sabir and asked rudely,
“Did you call Maha a pauper and Tanya an orphan?”
“So what if I did?” Sabir said , belligerently.
May be he didn’t want to fight because it was his wedding. May be the shock of finding this side to his father that Bilal mentioned often was big enough for him to not launch into a temper tantrum but he contended himself with walking out the room and warning Sabir,
“Be careful around me, Abu! I don’t like men who talk about women without respect”.
Bilal realized that there was a reason his mother didn’t tell Azhar about Sabir and had gladly taken Azhar’s displeasure and disapproval of her. He was sure that if Azhar found out who Sabir really was, hell would break loose.
They were outside the wedding area waiting for the girls’ wedding party to be all present before they walked in.
Moments like these were so hard for him. When everyone walked normally. When everyone was watching him and instead of seeing his face, they’d look automatically at his legs and how he walked.
He texted her from the car,
“We are here”.
“Say something. I’m very nervous”.
“I’m nervous too”.
“Yes but people won’t stare at you when you’ll walk to me. I’m a spectacle. You’re a vision.”
“I’m waiting for you. Don’t think about anyone else. When you come inside, just keep your head up and walk towards me”.
“But you won’t be outside until the nikah is done”.
“Oh! I forgot about that”.
“I have to do this one on my own, Tanya! Sometimes it’s cruel what life expects of me”.
“Azhar! Isn’t it enough that we will be together forever? Don’t think about things that make you sad”.
“It never helps if someone suggests to a cripple that they shouldn’t think about their crippled existence”.
“Would it be better if I came out before you did?”
“You can’t. They won’t let us sit together until the nikah is done. Our moms went over the program last night and I don’t want to make last minute changes”.
“Okay I can’t text anymore. See you soon, lover”.
He smiled at her sudden boldness. She was always much more candid over texts than when they were having a verbal conversation.
He entered the wedding hall. There were rows of people on both sides, loudly chatting, throwing rose petals on him and his wedding party, putting flower ornaments on Maha and his mother, complimenting Hamza on his cuteness. He looked at the large banquet hall and felt like this was the perfect place to get married.
It was a large area that could contain about a thousand people. He knew there were over five hundred guests there. There were white chairs with satin lining them and big red bows adorning the backs. Some of these chairs were higher backed and closer to the stage where the table said “RESERVED FOR AZHAR’S FAMILY”. The finest china was on every table. It was a very sophisticated event. There were red roses in every glass vase on the tables and every table was lit with twenty candles each, all small and bright, giving off a romantic glow. Over them was a huge canopy of powerful solar lights that illuminated the entire area and it looked like it was daytime even though the candles gave away a whimsical effect.
He walked, self conscious as he had always been since the accident and finally got on the red carpet that led to the stage.
He didn’t look up cuz he could see pity and sympathy in people’s eyes but Maha’s voice caused his head to jerk up,
“Ami! Why is Tanya outside before the nikah? That’s not okay”.
Suddenly he wanted to run. Suddenly he wanted to run forward and take his biggest treasure in his arms. She was there, like she had promised, resplendent in her red body-fitting outfit that showed off her breathtaking curves on her petite frame.
She smiled at him, a smile that promised nights of passion and days of ecstasy. She blushed under his gaze and averted her eyes, like she so often did and then looked up again.
Azhar felt his heart stopping. He had sinned but he had been rewarded beyond measure. How did that happen?
Nothing mattered. The limp, the stares, the polite whispers and the gentle tut tutting. Nothing mattered. All that mattered was that Tanya had come out against tradition, against custom, against what people thought proper and right. For him. She was like his soul connection.
He approached the stage and sat next to her. He didn’t know what to say. She looked magically beautiful. It was like he was under a spell and it would break if he said anything.
“Tanya wouldn’t sit inside as Azhar was coming in”, Asma was telling Nighat, almost apologetically.
“It’s okay. Of course she wouldn’t sit inside. What are we guarding anyway? They’ve known each other for ages”, he heard Nighat’s disapproving, patronizing voice.
He looked at Tanya to apologize but she was grinning,
“I wanted to come out as soon as I heard you were here. Mama was stopping me but I told her I had to be here. I don’t want you to think you’re not perfect, Azhar! Promise me! You’ll always think you’re perfect”.
“I wanna kiss you”.
Nighat lowered her face to them,
“Please don’t talk so much until nikah”.
Tanya, who was easy to be told off, immediately fell silent but Azhar said,
“Bilal! Come here and say hi. Maha! Come over”.
Bilal came over. It was hard to see her like this. Someone else’s bride! No, not someone else’s! My best friend’s. My brother’s wife. I will always love you, Tanya.
But to her he said,
“You couldn’t sit inside, could you?”
She smiled mischievously. Maha was standing in silence.
Soon Maulvi Sahab came and the nikah sermon was started.
“Tanya! Do you take Azhar as your husband?” Maulvi sahab asked her .
A lot of giggles from her cousins emerged from around her. She nodded, feeling strangely calm.
“You will have to say yes”, maulvi sahab prompted her.
“Yes”, she said softly.
“Louder, child”, he instructed again.
She could feel Azhar shaking beside her. She suspected he was laughing.
“Yes”, she said a little louder.
The drill lasted longer than she had anticipated but it was finally Azhar’s turn.
“Do you take Tanya as your wife?” Maulvi sahab asked.
“Yes, yes and yes. Where do I sign?” He goofed.
“Azhar!” Nighat admonished.
“It’s okay”, maulvi sahab said, “it’s quicker for me”.
There was sniggering all around.
As Azhar finished signing the papers, people started congratulating each other and Bilal grabbed them both from behind.
“Congratulations, guys. I love you both so much”, he said, genuinely meaning it.
Azhar kissed him full on the mouth and caused people to laugh around them.
“Azhar! Kiss Tanya now! Stop kissing Bilal. He can only be kissed by Maha”. Hashir said.
“He’s my brother and I’ll kiss him anyway I want and I kiss and hug him everyday anyway”, Azhar said possessively.
They all laughed, Tanya included. As people started hugging and congratulating each other even more, the general festivity of a nikah sweeping everyone with the wave of emotion, Azhar bent his head, looked at Tanya closely and whispered,
“Congratulations, Mrs. Hussain”.
She blushed but said,
“Can I not be Mrs. Azhar Hussain?”
“Whatever you want. Do you like my name so much?”
She didn’t say anything just kept repeating her name to herself, Tanya Azhar Hussain. Tanya Azhar Hussain. Tanya Azhar Hussain.
“I can’t wait to be alone with you”.
“I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love you”. He persisted.
She finally looked up. His sentences caused her to pause. She couldn’t say the same. She couldn’t say something even close to that. Because she had loved someone much more like a lover than she loved him. But somehow, her love for Azhar was steadier, purer and deeper. It was fuller and richer. It wasn’t borne of laughter and happiness. It was born through pain and illness. She felt like her bond with Azhar was strong like her heart, that had kept pulsating even when broken a million times. And it was willful like his body, that had kept moving despite all bones smashed at one point.
Soon I’ll be able to love you like you love me Azhar, she promised him wordlessly, soon we will both find each other on the same page. But until then, no one is happier than me for finding their husband in their best friend.
And then they were finally alone. In a whirlwind of traditions, farewells, hugs and tears, their wedding day ended.
She had never been away from her family in the conventional sense. If she had been away from them she had been at her uncle’s place in California. But that was more like a second home to her.
She felt strange in her new room. There was a long list of customary rituals that they went through before she was allowed to sit in a comfortable position in her room. She put her back against the headboard and took her new room in.
It was decorated so beautifully that she had no doubt that Azhar had played a major role in driving everyone crazy with his vision. He had asked her a week ago what her favorite flowers were and she had said without thinking that it was tulips. Then she realized that tulips were not only much more expensive but also rare some times of the year and had called him back and changed to roses. He had sounded skeptical but had taken her answer ultimately as the truth.
And now the whole room was decorated with red roses, and interspersed amongst them were jasmines, their combined heady scent romantic and sensual.
There was the traditional framework of flowers around the bed with garlands of roses and jasmine, intertwined with each other. As she was taking it all in, she heard the door open and Azhar entered.
Somehow she wasn’t intimidated or scared by his presence at all. Azhar had that effect on people. He was a calming force. He didn’t cause unrest or disruption.
He smiled at her and proceeded to lock the door and bolt it too. She couldn’t help smiling. She had thought of what they’d talk about on their first night together since they had already talked about everything.
He came over and saw her looking a little tired.
“Those sadists”, he said lovingly, “Really put you through the drill. You look tired”.
She found herself becoming nervous and wanted to look anywhere but at him .
“Not tonight, Tanya”, he said, huskily, “you can be shy and nervous tomorrow. Not tonight”.
He took her in his arms and tried to kiss her. She felt so awkward, even though they had kissed many times before, that she bent her head even lower and a giggle escaped her.
She heard him laughing too.
“Wow! Talk about knowing each other and being friends. Are you going to act like a typical wife and play hard to get?”
“May be”, she said, finding it hard to let go of all the teasing she could do .
“Okay. But I have to warn you that I was such a bad cricket player that I was always put in the longest position and so I have great experience with going for it”.
She giggled again.
“I think you’re confusing cricket and soccer”, she said.
“May be”, he said, self-deprecatingly, “I never had to prove my finesse in sports. Girls wanted me anyway”.
“I’m sure they did until you couldn’t kiss them and then they wanted to date a soccer player”, she looked at him for the first time.
Someone stop time, please, so I can drink Tanya in, he pleaded to the powers that be.
He had picked this outfit for her even though Nighat thought it wasn’t going to look nice on her. It was a deep red, rich like ruby, and had soft gold embellishments on it. It had a short shirt with a large skirt that spread all around her and accentuated her small waist. It had a chiffon dupatta that was much lighter than the other dupattas that the designer had shown them and he picked it because his bride was so small and light.
“Tanya”, he began huskily, “I swear if you are this beautiful everyday, I’ll lose my mind”.
He took her hands in his and looked at their engagement ring.
“You have the most beautiful hands. I wanna show you something”.
He took out her wedding gift, the ring that he had sold his most prized possession for and slipped it on.
“Azhar!” She exclaimed, “You have a bad habit of breaking the bank”.
“If you like it then it’s all worth it”, he said proudly.
“I love it”, she said softly.
“Okay wait!” She told him and then grabbed her little pretty purse from the bedside table.
She pulled out a box from it.
“It’s not much, Azhar, but I used all my money that I made with my house job for it so don’t think I skimped on it. This was all I could get without borrowing money from Mama”.
He opened the box. There was a simple ordinary brand watch that was so well-made that he had to look at the brand a few times to make sure that it wasn’t a super expensive one.
“You didn’t have to”, he said, “you really didn’t have to”.
“Did you like it?” She asked, unsure of herself like always.
He didn’t say anything. Somehow he had never expected a woman to care for him or for him to love a woman. Tanya had changed everything.
He wanted to kiss her but was afraid that any kiss tonight might have a sexual insinuation.
Then he threw caution to the wind and pulled her in his arms, Tanya’s light body never a match for his strength.
She sighed a little and offered him her mouth even before he asked. He pressed on her lips with a carnal need and slowly gave in to her softness.
Her jewelry lightly sang as he kissed her neck. Her small body fitted so perfectly in his arms, it was like she was made for him.
“Tanya”, he called her name over and over, “do you know you’re my life?”
“Yes”, she said, then added, “Is it too arrogant of me to know how much my husband loves me?”
“Your husband wants you to know how much he loves you. He wants you to never doubt it. Always trust his love”.
“Azhar!” She said, her breathing irregular, “I’ve never had someone love me so selflessly”.
He took his mouth off of her neck. She looked so vulnerable and he felt an intense hate for the man who broke her heart.
“Things happen”, he said, stroking her hair and planting tiny kisses along her left cheek, “Only Allah knows why bad things happen to us. But we are not bad people if misfortunes happen to us”.
She had always thought Allah had punished her for her closeness with Bilal. She knew Allah had forgiven her by giving her Azhar. But she had always thought she had sinned.
“So I’m not a bad person?”
“No”, he said wisely, “If you were a bad person, how would you be so loved?”
She relaxed in his arms like she had finally found some rest after walking through a desert barefoot and thirsty.
“Thanks for loving me, Azhar”, she took his face in her hands and tried to get closer.
He drew her in more while unzipping her shirt and laying her down in the center of the bed.
She pulled him closer too. He laughed at her eagerness,
“Easy, kid! I’m not as nimble as I used to be”.
She unbuttoned his clothes, marveling at how gorgeous her husband was and how easy it was to love his heart.
“Can’t go easy on you tonight, husband”, she said huskily, “Tonight I just wanna be Mrs. Azhar Hussain as soon as possible”.