All’s Fair….Part 18

CHAPTER 161:

Staying away from Azhar was harder for her than it seemed it was for him. She was in the Northeast America for just a month but it seemed like time was not changing at all. Her first interview wasn’t until the second week of her stay and she had nothing to do except sit in a hotel room for the first week.

It was hard to be away from him. She missed everything about him. It was a fact that they were more like friends. Like friends we make in school that we want to talk to all the time and share everything with.

Surprisingly he had been very logical on all the phone calls. They talked for 10-12 hours everyday.

“It’s only a month. You won’t even feel it”, he said encouragingly.

“I’m already feeling it”, she said miserably, “I’m really feeling it”.

“Tanya!” He said carelessly, “It’s not your fault. It’s the magic of Azhar. Once you’ve had it, you can’t live without it”.

She laughed loudly.

“Then it’s good for me”, she said, pretending to think, “that I’m away from you and eyeing other men. I need to remove this magic as soon as possible if it’s making me miss you so much that I can’t even breathe”.

“You’re not allowed to eye other men”, he said immediately.

“But one might argue”, she continued, “that if this magic was so potent, why would I already be eyeing strange beautiful men? Wouldn’t this magic be slightly sturdier and more lasting? It’s really tearing down at the seams”.

“It’s low quality magic. Made in my amateur lab”.

“So you accept it’s low quality? So you shouldn’t mind if I find high quality magic”.

“I forbid you to”.

“You can’t forbid me. You just said a few weeks ago that adults don’t ask for permission”.

“But if adults forbid other adults then that trumps one adult’s autonomy”.

“Don’t make your own rules”.

“Tanya!” He sighed, “You won’t like anyone. I’ve been to the USA twice and never saw a guy better looking than I am”.

“Think quite highly of yourself, Sir! “.

“It’s a fact”, he said, trying to provoke her, “Half your cousins are dating men who look like me since seeing me”.

“Azhar”, she said, shaking her head, “You’re a great guy but your head is way too far up your own ass”.

She interviewed in Buffalo, New York. Her interview went better than her expectations. She immediately called him after.

“Was it amazing or was it amazing?” He screamed as soon as he heard her say “hello”.

“How did you know it was amazing?” She asked, laughing.

“Are you kidding me? You went all the way to the the other end of the world for a dream. A conviction. A career. Do you know how amazing that is?”

Sometimes thanking Allah for Azhar didn’t seem enough. Loving him didn’t seem enough. Respecting him and his ways didn’t seem enough. Sometimes what he meant to her needed a whole different discipline of love, gratitude and worship. She felt like she needed to put a charm on him so he never fell out of love with her because then what would be the point of living?

“It was awesome, Azhar”, she enthused, “They really liked me. The program director is a woman and after hearing that I traveled from Pakistan for a residency she was so impressed. I’m so hopeful that they’ll rank me high. It’s a very IMG (international medical graduate) friendly program”.

“It must be a very smart woman if she liked my wife. Because only very smart people can get what and who Tanya is. How’re you feeling? Tired?”

“A little”, she said, “But not so much that you can get out of phone sex with me tonight”.

He laughed. His sexy, clear laugh.

“I never get out of sex on principle. Penises are fickle things and before it won’t work, I want to get my sex in”.

They talked the whole day. Tanya was leaving for Maryland two days after and was shooting for a big university program in Baltimore.

The night before her interview she couldn’t sleep. She had traveled the day prior to Baltimore and may be because she was coming from Buffalo which is quiet and idyllic, Baltimore looked scary. It was busy and fast. She had to wait for hours at BWI Airport for a cab and somehow this place seemed much crazier than Manhattan, New York where she had spent many summers vacationing with her family.

She was interviewed by many people. She had prepared extra hard and even though didn’t have much research or publications behind her, the hospital was IMG friendly. It helped that she had an American passport but it only helped so much. Her IMG status made it all very competitive for her.

Her interview went well. She hadn’t expected it to go so well. Thankfully the program listened to her more than reading her resume and that always worked for her. She had a great personality and prepared for interviews with a vengeance.

The next day she took a flight back to JFK Airport to interview at an inner city hospital in the Bronx, New York.

This was a tertiary care center in one of the most underserved areas of New York City. It was a great academic center and had most fellowships. It was coveted for what it could offer in terms of training, mentoring and eventually catapulting to a fellowship. She had desperately wanted to be a part of this program. All her interviews were at university programs except this one. This wasn’t a university program but it was affiliated with an Ivy League university.

Her legs were shaking the morning of the interview. She had talked to Azhar almost the whole night before and had finally hung up to say Fajr. He called her when she was in the cab, on the way to the hospital.

“Just wanted to say good luck to the smartest doctor in the world”, he sang over the phone.

“Thanks”, she said, fidgeting with her bag, “If I don’t do well with this one it would all be in vain”.

“Don’t say that “, he scolded lovingly, “First of all it’s going to be amazing and second of all, life doesn’t stop with one wrong move or turn”.

Contrary to her trepidation, her interview went phenomenally well. She knew loads about the program and had been more prepared than she had ever been. She came out skipping a little and called him again,

“It was so good, so good, so good”. She screamed as she scanned the street for a cab.

“That good?” He laughed. “Then we might be moving to the USA in the next nine months or so?”

“That’s possible!” She said, thoughtfully, “You know since coming here and interviewing I feel like I have a shot. It’s not so far-fetched. But how will you leave your family, Azhar?”

He was quiet. She was right. It wasn’t easy for him. But he realized that it wasn’t easy for his marriage to thrive in that house either. He could see the subliminal abuse that came Tanya’s way almost all the time. Maha never faced aggression at the hands of Sabir but Tanya had been dealing with that also and sometimes it was worse than Nighat’s indifference and open animosity. He didn’t want his marriage to collapse like Bilal’s. It was true that Tanya and he loved each other madly but anyone could break under stress. Any woman would choose respect over a loving marriage.

Also, he could see how Bilal’s marriage wasn’t being supported by anyone. Maha and Bilal were drifting apart and no one cared. He had tried to talk to Nighat and she had been tight-lipped. He wondered what it was that she knew that he didn’t.

“You left your family too, Taanu”, he said lightly, “Then why can’t I?”

“I’m a girl, silly”, she said giggling at this comparison, “Girls are expected to leave their parents and siblings to make a home”.

“Don’t know which idiot made that rule but doesn’t seem fair”, he said, frowning.

“Yes”, she sighed, “It’s not fair but it is what it is”.

“I will miss them but I think we need to think about us”, he said more seriously. “Between you and me, Ami alone has always been tough to handle. With Abu it’s a double whammy”.

“We were thinking of setting up house separately anyway”, she agreed .

“Yes”, he said, “We were thinking of it already. May be it will be in another country”.

“And what about Bilal?” She asked curiously, “Is he okay with this?”

“Yes”, Azhar said with a strange voice, “He needs to grow up too, Tanya! If he had worked a little more, his wife wouldn’t be so unhappy”.

“He shouldn’t have gotten married”, she said, scared to ever touch this subject but not able to resist either, “He should’ve never gotten married. He could’ve taken his time, really healed and then should’ve done some soul-searching. May be he would’ve been capable of a healthy relationship if his grief and sadness were processed better”.

“May be”, now it was his turn to be thoughtful, “May be”.

CHAPTER 162:

“Billu!”

“Hey! How did Tanya’s interviews go?”

“Very well. She’s coming back tomorrow”.

“Great! How’ve you been without her?”

“I’m okay. Somehow it’s easier to be away from Tanya than it is to be from you.”

Bilal was quiet.

“Bilal! What’s going on? What’s going to happen between you and Maha?”

“I don’t know”, he said, inhaling deeply and letting go, “It’s hard to say. We are both so in our feelings that it’s hard to say”.

“Do you want to separate?”

Bilal laughed.

“She and I both agree that this is the temporary separation that we would’ve done if we ever thought of a divorce. So if this doesn’t work, Azhar, if distance doesn’t help us sort some of it out then we will just have to part ways”.

They were both quiet. Many minutes passed.

“Azhar!” Bilal began, “My life is really messed up. The only bright spot is you. Not even my kids evoke the kind of love that you’d think kids would. That’s because I’m unhappy. Maha doesn’t know but you do. I’m a father and a husband. I’m also running a huge business. So I can’t afford the insanity that I displayed after I broke up. Not eating or excessively eating, holing myself up in my room, seeing a therapist, taking three or four antidepressants at a time. Those aren’t things I can do now. I’m trying to sort out this mess that I got myself in”.

“I know”, Azhar said quietly. “Ami ruined your life”.

“Hurt people hurt people”, he said resignedly, “Who can blame Ami? She does things through rote mechanisms that she has learned. She has become so habitual of control that she achieves it by hook or by crook. I don’t blame her. Don’t be angry with her. I should’ve manned up”.

He changed the topic.

“So if Tanya gets accepted into residency, when will you guys have to move?”

“So it’s November now. The match is in March. And residency starts July. I’m thinking we will have to start apartment searching and what not in March so we are prepared for July. We were thinking of moving in June. Get settled. A little head start”.

“Not a bad idea”, Bilal agreed. “There’s still a lot of time”.

“Yes”, Azhar said, thinking of his brother’s marriage, wife and kids, “There is time”.

“I’ll be back by then”, Bilal said. “This place is shaping up nicely”.

“Billu!” Azhar said hesitatingly, “Can I share something with you? Promise me you won’t say to Abu because he’ll think I cried to you”.

“Did he turn you down for work at the factory?” He asked abruptly.

“Yes”, Azhar said, slightly surprised but knowing by now that Bilal had his finger on their father’s erratic behavior, “How did you know?”

“Is that why Tanya is looking for residency?” He asked sharply again.

“No”, Azhar said, trying to ascertain the reason for Bilal’s line of reasoning, “She would’ve at some point but I agree that my joblessness doesn’t help”.

Bilal sighed. He wondered if what might have happened between Sabir and Azhar was enough to open Azhar’s eyes about Sabir.

“But, Billu”, Azhar said, trying to trick Bilal into an honest answer that he had always avoided, “Ami was very subdued and spoke with Abu with a lot of deference. I mean, she loves me a lot, I know! But even for that her submissiveness! Something was so out of character that I just couldn’t get it”.

“Hmm”, Bilal said thoughtfully, “Hey I need to be up early so I need to sleep. I’ll talk to you tomorrow”.

Before Azhar could say bye he had hung up.

Six hours later he was walking into their home, everyone sitting down for dinner.

“Bilal!” Azhar screamed and felt happiness that he hadn’t felt in days. Being away from his two hearts had been very hard for him. He thought Bilal surprised him.

Maha, Hamza and Haifa were ecstatic as could be seen. Even Nighat smiled. Sabir, on the other hand, had a frown that was missed by most people except Bilal.

“I was just talking to him, Ami”, Azhar said, hugging Bilal and lifting him in his arms, “Look at this bloody…”

Aman and Hashir came and hugged him. Azhar noticed that even Maha came forward and stood next to him, beaming.

“I’ll ask Khalil to make more bread”, Nighat said pleasantly getting up immediately and walking to the kitchen, “Next time I don’t want surprise visits. We are eating zucchini and you don’t like it. But wait!” She remembered something, “I’ll warm up some left overs. Why’re you not eating in Lahore, by the way?” She scolded him lovingly and went into the kitchen.

“I’m eating a lot and spend most of the time at the gym before or after”, he said casually.

“Does everyone know you’re here?” Sabir asked quietly, “Normally our employees don’t expect you to visit Karachi in the middle of the week”.

“I don’t care”, he said, quieter than him, “I thought of my mother. Nothing could stop me then”.

CHAPTER 163:

He watched her putting the kids to bed and an overwhelming sense of shame and remorse took him. What were they doing? He knew she was seeing her ex. She knew he preferred staying away from her.

“Can I talk to you?” She said after he had gotten into bed.

“Sure”, he smiled. “You look so good. Remember I told you workout becomes a type of habit?”

“Yes”, she smiled too. “I enjoy it. I never knew it could be so enjoyable and fulfilling”.

They remained silent for a few seconds.

“How’s Lahore?” She asked.

“It’s okay”, he said, then added honestly, “I miss you guys a lot”.

Maha was quiet. Sometimes she felt she was a fraud to live a marriage that they both knew was failing.

But it deserves one chance, she thought vehemently, it deserves at least one chance.

“I met with Hamid today”, she said cautiously.

He didn’t respond. He felt no ownership for Maha. A part of him felt less guilty that at least she was living some sort of a romantic life after all.

“How’s he?”

“He proposed to me today”, she said quickly, like ripping a bandage.

“What did you say?” He asked, preparing himself for what was coming.

Another failed relationship, he thought bitterly, another woman who was disappointed by me. Another round of pity to come my way. A little more depression. A whole new getting used to.

But this time is different, he continued to stare at her while his mind went into cartwheels, this time it’s all so different. This time I have two kids. This time this woman will actually be taking a lot more of me with her than another woman did once. I continue to lose heavier bets! Who created this game? Who set the table? Who made the rules?

“I said no”, he heard her and thought he had heard her incorrectly.

“What?” He said, unsure whether if what he had heard was his salvation or another form of punishment.

“I said no”, she said, sighing. “I want to give it another chance, Bilal! Don’t you?”

Somehow life had taken the strength or the wisdom to make decisions. There was an uncertainty about life and its demands on him. He felt that every time he wasn’t looking, life was trying to get him.

He cleared his throat. It was hard to lie one more time to a woman who depended on his answer.

“It’s up to you, Maha”, he said evenly, “When you started seeing him again, I had prepared myself for a divorce eventually”.

“There’s no doubt that I love him but I love my kids more”, she said, somewhat more stoic than she normally was. But she had been stoic for months now. “And I can see how this can affect them. Can we think of them and work together?”

His heart seemed unsure. It had never been sure about Maha but she was the mother of his children. Sometimes that became the biggest fact of all.

“I’m willing to do anything for Hamza and Haifa”, he said, meaning it.

She smiled again.

“I wanted to suggest that we move to Lahore with you? This separation should be over now. It has been many months. It will also help me get Hamid out of my system “.

He contemplated this. From what Azhar had told him, Sabir was probably feeling courageous in his absence. If he further removed more family members, what would he do? He didn’t want to think .

But Azhar was here for about a good six to eight months, he thought. And Sabir normally chose to operate only very meekly around Azhar.

“You can certainly come with me”, he said warmly, “Why don’t you guys come with me now? My apartment is big enough for all of us. Lahore is beautiful. Have you ever been?”

“No”, she said quietly, reaching out for his hand, “Thank you. Thank you, Bilal! I didn’t think you’d take me back but I want our family to stay together”.

He hugged her. Moments like these when she talked about family were his weakest. She was his family. Probably more family than another person who haunted his thoughts all the time.

CHAPTER 164:

He waited at the airport for her. Her flight had been delayed and she had spent a lot of time at Dubai airport. She finally appeared, walking excitedly towards him, her purposeful walk as light as when she had left.

When she was just a few feet away she ran and jumped in his arms. He laughed and picked her up and gave her a little twirl. Tanya fitted so perfectly in his arms that he believed she was made for him.

“How’re you?” She asked, her eyes scanning his face, a little fatigue in his gray eyes.

“So good now that I’ve seen you”, he said, taking in her dry skin and disheveled hair.

“I missed you so much, Azhar”, she said, almost regretfully, “Next time when I suggest stupid things like you can stay here while I can be away for a month, just smack me!”

He laughed.

“I won’t smack you but I will remind you of this conversation. Hungry?”

“Starving!”

“Tired?”

“Exhausted”.

“Let’s go feed you”.

They got in the car and sped off.

“Bilal came home last night”.

“Really?” She had still been thinking of her interviews. “I thought he only got time over weekends”.

“Usually”, he agreed, “He is taking Maha and the kids with him. We spoke at Fajr”.

Tanya was quiet. This was the best thing to happen in current circumstances. They had been living dangerously close and sometimes she could tell that the past that seemed so distant to her was just yesterday for Bilal. He avoided her strictly and had adopted a silence around her that bothered her for how intentional it was. Like he was afraid to say or do the wrong thing.

“It’s important that they go away”, Azhar said, lost in his own thoughts, “I feel our marriage isn’t good for them to watch. Under normal circumstances it would’ve been the best thing to be together under one roof but currently…….. I really think it’s all for the best”.

They ate and talked for hours. She told him about the different interviews that she had one more time. Azhar was so attentive and picked up on minor details so well that he was a dream to talk to.

“You look remarkably better than when you got down from that god awful plane”, he said, looking at her after they had finished eating.

“Azhar!” She said, clinging to him, “Can we go to the beach for just an hour?”

He grinned.

“You’re a weird one. Why do you wanna go to the beach now?”

“I just wanna spend time with you”, she said, pouting like a child.

“Can’t say no to you”, he said, taking her hand and getting in the car.

Even though sometimes it was hard to say whether Karachi was her hometown given how much she had always traveled, Karachi was her favorite place. She put her head on the seat and watched the traffic, suddenly realizing how much she had missed here.

Karachi Beach is such a happening place at all times of the day that there is always a lot to watch. People, vendors, hawkers, children running after beach toys and chasing each other.

“I don’t know if we will ever have kids”, she said wistfully as they settled in a much quieter part of the beach.

“We will have kids”, he said, running his hand though her tangled hair, “Don’t say things that indicate despair. Allah doesn’t like it”.

She watched the waves and the kids running against them. She was on a high when she had seen him but realized that as the time to go home with him came closer she had gotten anxious. She just didn’t find those people to be her family. That place didn’t feel home to her. She had a borderline miserable time because she didn’t have Azhar on the trip with her but a part of her had been very relieved also to be away from Azhar’s family.

He sensed she was quiet. She was very perky before coming to the beach and had now lost her spunk a little.

He kissed her and pulled her in his lap.

“Are you going to become sad for something that we don’t even want right now?”

She settled against his body.

“Think about it”, she breathed, “we would’ve had two”.

“We can have many kids. We just have to know we are good parents too. Seriously, Taanu, I like taking a little time before taking on such a huge project like kids”.

“Really?” She asked innocently.

“Yeah, really”, he said, looking at the laughing kids too, “See we prepare for everything, right? You took years to get over your ex so you could really be there for the next man in your life. We check ourselves for readiness all the time. Why don’t we do that consciously for kids too? We should check in with ourselves periodically about adulthood-related things, right? Don’t you think these are decisions that people should make after loads of deliberation and thought?”

“Guess so”, she said thoughtfully, “I don’t want to have babies right now anyway. I’m very scared of losing another one.”

“Hmm”, he agreed, “and I don’t think we are ready. You’ll be hearing about your match soon. I’m looking for more steady work. We want to live independent from my parents in the near future. We have some big fish to fry”.

“Real big, man”, she said, thinking hard, “Did you talk to Bilal about the match coming out in March and then our possible move in June?”

“Yes. In detail. He will be back by then”.

They talked about random stuff for an hour and when he saw her dozing off during sentences he brought her to the car and drove her home.

Nighat was visiting her uncle. Bilal and Maha were out shopping before their move. Sabir was at work. This was heaven for Tanya who quickly settled in her room, cuddled with Azhar and they both slept.

She woke up ten hours later. It was evening and she was much more groggy and jet lagged than she had ever been before. Probably because usually she slept during travel and this time she hadn’t. She noticed Azhar wasn’t in the room and panic rose inside of her.

She stepped outside. As always, in a house of ten or more people there was an eerie silence.

“Azhar!” She called out tentatively.

Nighat appeared. Almost like a supernatural vision. She stepped out of her room that she usually kept so dark.

“You’re back?” Her voice was like silk.

“Hi”, Tanya said, nervousness consuming her at facing her enemy after so many days.

“Azhar went out with his father”, Nighat said. “Can I help you?”

“No”, Tanya said, “I was just looking for him. How are you?”

Nighat didn’t answer. She went into the kitchen and busied herself with something there.

Tanya didn’t know what to do. There was an open hatred that she had always felt from Nighat but now for some reason it was escalating. A part of her sometimes regretted marrying Azhar. She had lost love once. She could lose another friendship and an evolving love relationship. But at least there would’ve been some respect and dignity. Nighat had made sure that she kept stripping her of any dignity that came her way.

She went back in her room. She was still tired and tried to sleep again.

I hope I match, she thought desperately. I hope I match. I hope I match. I hope I match.

Azhar woke up the next morning.

“Wake up”, he said, stroking her hair. “Eat something. Then you can sleep again”.

She curled up in his arms and tried to get closer.

“What happened?” He asked lovingly, “Wanna sleep some more?”

She shook her head.

“Then wake up and eat,” he said, coaxing her, “I get worried when you don’t eat”.

She snaked her hand in his shirt. He laughed and took it out.

“Nope”, he said firmly, “Nothing until you eat”.

“I don’t want to”, she said. She hated going out of her room.

“Well you have to. I haven’t eaten yet and I refuse to eat without you”.

She finally got up and showered. They sat down to eat breakfast.

“Here”, he set a plate before her with a flourish, “especially for you”.

“Oh, Azhar!” Her eyes filled with tears. Somehow Azhar’s love was sometimes not enough to make everyone else’s rudeness go away.

“You like the French toast I make, right? So I decided I should make your breakfast. It’s nothing, Tanya, don’t cry over small things. Enjoy life! What happened? Aren’t you happy to be back? You used to laugh and smile so easily. Now you’re so meditative. What are you thinking?”

She thought about his words. She couldn’t deny any of his observations. She had become quiet and almost scared around everyone. Nighat’s threat that she could tell Azhar something hung over her head most of the time. In moments when she tried to be happy she thought of Bilal and his collapsing marriage. She had never blamed herself for anything in Bilal’s life but recently she had started to.

She smiled to make it better,

“I’m fine! Just worried that I have no more interviews and even if I had I wouldn’t be able to go a second time”.

“Who said you can’t go a second time? If you have to go, you’ll go. That’s not your worry, okay?” He said looking in her eyes.

Then without warning he kissed her mouth.

“We have to finish breakfast quickly because we have to work really hard afterwards”.

“Really?” She said, eyes wide, “Where are we going?”

“I’ll take you to a place”, he said, holding her face, “Which is just ours. Where we talk and laugh and have fun without any policing. Where you and I can be ourselves. And just love each other. Spend time with each other. No one has access to that place. Not even our kids will have access to that place. Can you guess where that is?”

“The only place that I can really think of”, she said, kissing his lips, “is your arms. Nowhere else, Azhar! Every other place has so much stress and negativity. But when I’m with you I forget everything”.

“So in other words”, he said, winking at her, “just so there’s no confusion, I wanna have sex”.

Tanya giggled.

“I figured as much. Just wanted to say some romantic crap too. Can’t let you think I’m not creative with this god awful preparatory speech for sex”.

He laughed and pulled her in his lap. They ate breakfast.

Azhar always fixed everything. It was almost like she hadn’t been rebuffed by his mother just the night before. It was like his brother hadn’t been on her mind a lot these past days and how her nefarious past followed her closely, waited to come out of the shadows anytime she wasn’t looking.

CHAPTER 165:

“I heard you’re taking Maha with you?” Sabir asked as soon as he got Bilal to himself.

“Yeah”, Bilal said carelessly, “I miss them a lot and she has gotten lonely too”.

Sabir laughed a small laugh.

“What’s this loneliness that guys nowadays are told of by their wives? My wife was Maha’s age once. She never complained of loneliness”.

She probably wanted to be left alone, Bilal seethed.

“Men can never focus on their work if women tag with them everywhere”, Sabir continued, “Lahore is going so well. I don’t want that messed up”.

He looked at his father with a brow raised.

“You speak of the business like I’m your employee. I’m a thirty percent partner”.

“I know”, Sabir said, immediately backpedaling, “Son! My experience counts for something. You won’t have the same focus and attention with this whole circus there. I mean”, he laughed conspiratorially, “Your life is made. Live carefree in Lahore, come to Karachi for a few days, enjoy family then take a break again”.

“My family isn’t a circus”, Bilal said, his temper rising, “I feel my focus is going to be better when they’re around. I’m alone there. Sometimes I don’t feel my life is worth living if I’m going to be madly chasing my business”.

Sabir was quiet. He had cornered Bilal for something else and this wasn’t the way he expected the conversation to go.

“Whatever you think best, son! He said, placating him. “I had something else to talk about. Actually”, he cleared his throat, “Sajida called”.

Sajida was Sabir’s sister.

Bilal waited for what he knew was coming.

“Two of her sons have been recently laid off. She asked if they’d have something to do at the factory. I promised her to accommodate them in some capacity”.

Bilal’s temper was rising but he wasn’t Azhar. He had learned a long time ago from his mother that revenge isn’t ever satisfying if it is exacted in the moment. He hadn’t confronted Sabir so far. He had been monitoring Sabir’s text messages and knew that Sabir hadn’t just promised jobs. Both his cousins would be getting ownership in the company. This was the promise that Sabir had made his sister. But he didn’t want to tell anyone the truth because there wasn’t a formal board of directors. There was no real formality in how they owned assets in the business or how money was divided. Bilal was still largely salaried and he truly didn’t care. Most of his money went to Maha anyway who used it for whatever she needed. She did everything for him. From clothes to colognes, she had always shopped for him. Shopping was one of her favorite things and she really bought great deals. The rest of his share of profit went to his mother’s bank account and she used it towards housekeeping. Truthfully, Sabir’s money went to the business most of all and then the rest went to this sister and that brother. He himself sometimes didn’t know where his money went because he gave so much away to his siblings and their many kids .

But as hurtful as Sabir’s frivolous spending on his siblings was from a business that Bilal poured his sweat and blood into, Azhar was rejected for a position in their own business and that was eating at his soul. He knew Azhar’s ideological differences with Sabir’s business and knew that it must have been really bad financially for him to even consider it but he had heard enough to know that he was turned down very unceremoniously. That had become a wound that Sabir had laid open again now. To think that Azhar was humiliated and Nighat was also was becoming too much to carry without returning that favor to Sabir himself.

But not for nothing was he his Nanajan’s favorite grandson. He was compassionate and knew how to separate his compassion also from family members who didn’t deserve it.

“But we don’t have any openings”, he frowned, “Why did you promise them anything?”

“I couldn’t say no, son”, Sabir said in his groveling way, “She’s my sister. They’re my nephews. They’re your cousins”.

“Abu!” Bilal said, trying to sound logical and separating any argument from it, “If we offer them positions then how will you explain to Azhar why he was turned down?”

Sabir stared at him. He hadn’t counted on Bilal mentioning it. It was many months ago and he had never thought that Bilal would even hear about what happened given how strongly Nighat disliked him and never shared anything with him and how proud Azhar was. He did some quick thinking and then said,

“Azhar can come too. I just said it then because he has always been so antagonistic towards my business that it has become an ego thing. I was just emotional. That’s all. Azhar can come too”.

Bilal smiled as he looked at Sabir squarely,

“Why don’t you tell Azhar that at dinner tonight? He might feel a little better about it”.

“Sure, son” Sabir immediately rallied. “I’ll be sure to bring it up and let Azhar know. He’s always welcome.”

Bilal watched as Sabir shuffled back in the house.

He called someone on his cell.

“Nana’s favorite child!” Arsalan’s voice boomed.

“I love you, Nanajan”, he said, feeling immense love for the man who had always protected them.

“I love you too”, Arsalan said. “I miss you so much. Lahore is so good that you forgot me?”

“Not at all. I miss everyone so much too. Can Azhar and I meet for a quick snack and I’ll fill both of you in on something?”

“Everything okay?”

“Yes. Everything’s under control. Just wanted to prepare Azhar. He doesn’t know much”.

“Wanna have some steaks and roasted potatoes?”

“That’s snack?” Bilal laughed.

“For my best grandson, that’s nothing”.

“Love you, Nanajan! See you in about an hour”.

He ran inside the house.

“Hey”, he found Azhar in their guest room working on his laptop. “Let’s go to Nanajan’s place. Something important has come up”.

“Now?”

“Yes!”

“Let’s go”.

On the way to Arsalan’s place Bilal filled him in.

“Wow!” Azhar drew a long whistle, “Abu really is a shady character”.

“He’s a scoundrel”, Bilal said bitterly.

Arsalan welcomed them with open arms. Azhar and Bilal had grown up for others but to him they were still the young kids who raced in his garden and chased his dogs and cats.

“Whoa! Nanajan! I’ll get fat again”, Bilal said as he looked at the spread.

In the one hour that he had had, Arsalan’s chef had prepared a magnificent spread. There were mashed potatoes, steaks seared to perfection, mini pizzas, chicken wings, and some aromatic mixed veg rice. There was chopped salad and cole slaw. Arsalan’s chef was a master drink maker and had made virgin mojitos that Arsalan especially mulled jalapeños for. He had a special interest in nonalcoholic cocktails and had gotten really good with time. His chef mirrored this interest also and was always on the lookout for exotic drinks that could be converted into nonalcoholic beverages.

They ate and talked. Bilal told Arsalan of everything.

Arsalan listened intently. Sabir was deceitful. He had known that for years.

Azhar was surprised but not so much. He knew that his father had a deeper allegiance to his siblings than he had ever had to his wife and children.

“So what do you plan to do now?” Arsalan asked.

“Here’s what I want to do”, Bilal said, swallowing his food, “I had proposed many months ago that all of us brothers should get our corporate shares in the company. We should all have a responsibility towards the company according to our interest and of course, capability. He declined that saying we can divide the business after his death.

“But this is a weird situation because he is dividing it in his life but not amongst us. So essentially what he planned to do was give away all of his shares in his will while giving away some of it now and so when he would’ve died, they would’ve either kicked me out or bought me out.”

“They can’t kick you out”, Arsalan said, thinking, “You own thirty percent. They won’t kick you out also because you’re the one who’s running it. Sabir’s family is a smart one. You’re their golden ticket.

But every dog has its day”, Arsalan said, getting up from his chair and wiping his face on a towel, “And tonight is this dog’s day”, he said pointing to himself, self-deprecatingly.

“What do you mean?” Azhar asked.

“Sabir doesn’t have seventy percent. That’s a tale he tells Bilal to keep him under his thumb. Sabir has twenty percent. Even less than Bilal. Nighat has forty percent. She’s the biggest shareholder”.

Azhar and Bilal’s mouths were open.

“I invested in that business a long time ago. I started that business in a way. Do you know who the first owner of that business was?”

They stared at him.

“Al Pacino?” Azhar said, trying to be funny.

“No”, Arsalan smiled, “Nighat’s mother. My beautiful, talented wife. She used to make pottery. Beautiful, high-end earthenware. We exported it. She gave it to Nighat as a wedding present. Sabir took over when he really didn’t need to. He took a big chunk from Nighat and was very hesitant about parting with anymore when Bilal asked for his share. But Bilal persisted like I knew he would. I’m so proud of you for being a consummate businessman with morals. Never lose that”.

Azhar looked at his brother and beamed.

“So how did it convert into the current version of it? Abu just changed everything?”. Azhar asked.

“Well he had to”, Bilal said, shrugging his shoulders, “Earthenware isn’t very exportable anymore. It’s also not considered exotic or lucrative now”.

“So considering all this, I had papers drawn a month ago when he declined the position to Azhar. I knew something was up. And Nighat has signed the papers and now Azhar has forty percent”.

“Ami gave it all to me?” Azhar said incredulously.

“You are her favorite”, Arsalan singsonged.

“Wait a minute”, Bilal said, suddenly looking perplexed, “If Azhar has 40, I have 30 and Abu has 20, then where is the other ten? Who has that?”

Arsalan smiled,

“You have 40, dearest grandson”, he said, looking at the bewildered looks on the brothers’ faces, “I owned ten percent that I gave you last month while we were drawing up papers for Azhar. Here”, he turned around and collected a bundle of papers from the accent table behind him. “Now you and Azhar own forty percent each and Sabir has twenty. He was probably thinking of giving them Nighat’s but he forgot that my daughter has lived so long with him that she has become just as shrewd. She has become just as conniving”.

CHAPTER 166:

It was hard for Sabir to contain himself after getting the green light from Bilal. He knew who had how many shares. He had suspected a long time ago that Arsalan had bequeathed his share to Nighat also but wasn’t sure. But being the tyrannical dictator that he so quietly was, he didn’t consider Nighat anything. Many years ago he had realized that by keeping her busy in her boys he could run this ship much more smoothly. So even though he had seen her being offensive and unjust to Bilal, he had never tried to ask why or defend his son. He had considered this a good distraction from things that were really important to him.

His siblings were very important to him. If he had been just as devoted of a father, this would’ve been an admirable quality. Because he was a terrible father, this had become a bone of contention between him and Arsalan and later him and Bilal.

“Erm, Azhar!” He cleared his throat, “I’m sorry for not giving you a position a few weeks ago. I have never had a great response from you in the past so when you asked I guess…… my ego was a little bruised. You certainly can come and work for me. Anytime you want”.

Here we go, Bilal and Azhar thought at the same time. Their eyes met each other’s and the whole conversation occurred like a well-oiled machine in motion.

“Thank you, Abu”, Azhar said, “But I had an interesting meeting with Nanajan this afternoon. From what he showed me and told me, I shouldn’t be asking anyone for any job in our business. I own a part of it”.

Sabir looked at him dumbfounded.

“Just because you’re my son doesn’t mean you own my business, dear son”, he said sarcastically, “Wait for me to die”.

“I don’t think I have to”, Azhar said casually , “And I don’t think being your son is necessary at all for me in order to come into some money. Just by being Ami’s son, I’ve acquired quite a huge percentage of the wealth that you’ve amassed”.

“What do you mean?” Sabir said, dangerously quiet.

“Ami gave me her forty percent”, Azhar said, “Thank you so much, Ami! Really needed the money”.

Nighat had her eyes fixed to her plate. She had been told by Arsalan that he had handed Azhar the papers.

“And Nanajan gave me ten percent of the share that he had. So I’m at forty also”, Bilal said, looking at Sabir unfeelingly.

“Why did you do this behind my back?” Sabir asked Nighat, a look of pure evil in his face.

“Abu is getting old and so am I”, she said evenly, “I would like to set my affairs in order before something happens to me. I encouraged Abu to do the same”.

A vein was throbbing menacingly in Sabir’s temple.

“You useless woman!” He stood up shrieking, “You useless, useless woman! I have no words. You’re of no use to me”.

“Listen to me”, Nighat said, getting up and beseeching him, “Who is all this for? Azhar and Bilal are dividing it four ways next week. All four of our sons are going to be partners with you. Aren’t you happy? People pray for this. To keep their business and their wealth in their family. You’re against it. Why?”

Sabir’s face was contorted to look like a snake. He hated Nighat more than he ever had in that moment.

He looked at her for many minutes and then stomped into his room.

“Didn’t go over well”, Bilal said matter of factly, “He is really obsessed with money”.

“Sure is”, Azhar said, eating corn bread and winking at his mother.

She had not been speaking to him for days but he never held a grudge. He had still been speaking with her, had still been his usual self around her. She felt like she hadn’t been fair. How could she blame him for being in love with that hoodwinking girl? She could turn the best of them.

She smiled at him fondly.

“Thank you, Ami”, he tried to make her smile more and maybe laugh too by being funny, “You have no idea how much I need heaps of money”.

She laughed. She came over and in a rare moment, felt overwhelming love for Bilal too who had been guarding her so closely. She hugged them both as they sat eating,

“My sons”, she said, her voice choking with emotion, “Should always stick together. You all are gems. I don’t know how I birthed you. I’m so flawed and so is your father but you all are so pure and unadulterated by material things”.

“You’re pure too, Ami”, Bilal said, the food making him nauseous when he thought of how she might have to pay for what she had done, “You’re the purest. If anyone comes for you, let me know. Anyone!”

CHAPTER 167:

Bilal saw some bruises on Nighat the next day and before he could even think of how to say it, the words came out,

“Ami! Why don’t you come to Lahore with me for a few weeks? Really the air is so good. People generally have improvement in arthritis and bone pain”.

She smiled.

“And what am I going to do in Lahore? Just sit at home?”

“That’s the last thing anyone does there. I live in an apartment complex so there are people around always. Kids, other women of your age! Think about it!”

She considered his offer.

“I’ve never been out of Karachi unless you count many years ago when my Abu took us on a rare trip”.

“So consider this a rare trip by your son. Really Ami, you can help Maha set up house too. Haifa is so clingy. I have a guy who cooks and is excellent. Then a girl comes and cleans the house. It’s like a vacation over there. Very pleasant, Ami”!

“Your dad won’t agree”, she said, rubbing her hands.

“He’ll agree”, he said, turning around, picking his car keys and throwing on his sunglasses. “He’ll agree! Right now he can’t wait to be rid of all of us”.

Surprisingly his prediction was right and Sabir agreed instantly. He had been very withdrawn from his family, even more than usual. He had reluctantly handed over the computers and accounting section of things to Azhar. His nephews were hired by Bilal and both Azhar and Bilal had set up a formal board with Arsalan as the power of attorney for eighty percent of the company even though he wasn’t a formal shareholder anymore. Sabir didn’t object. The tides were turning and he had to save himself. He saw no point in going up against his forceful and determined sons.

His nephews were hired for just one year. Sabir objected to this but Bilal silenced him.

“Our usual probation period is three months. They’re family so I’m giving them a year to prove themselves. I think we are being very generous”.

Slowly, the whole lay changed. It seemed like someone had set bad luck in motion over him and slowly, imperceptibly his entire life was being turned into a failure by the one son who had never meant that much to anyone anyway. Bilal had truly risen from the ashes that he was born in. And he had learned to soar on his own. While many people like Azhar and Arsalan were proud of him, Sabir had started hating him. He had defeated Sabir. Just like Arsalan had defeated Sabir many years ago.

Hashir and Aman had started coming to the Karachi factories a little too much for Sabir’s liking too. It was interesting work and the boys were born with a flare for business and they made friends with their employees soon. They started a small cafeteria in the factories and soon they had a great environment and people developed a camaraderie that had been Bilal’s focus since the beginning. He truly believed in the human connection and forged it with people with immense ease if he sensed that they were open to him.

He had asked himself often how Tanya, an ordinary girl with not much in common with him, had become a soulmate so much like Azhar was. And he realized that Tanya really connected with people on a personal level. Even as a physician she wasn’t snotty or someone with an air about her. She was downright humble and even though she didn’t have many friends and wasn’t quick to make friends either, she was loved by people almost instantly. When they were together he had seen a different side to himself. A less self-conscious side. A side that she let be. She allowed him to express himself without qualms. She never made fun of him or ask him uncomfortable questions about his education. She didn’t ask him much about his family. She had zero interest in anything except him. She really loved him for him. He used to tease her about how women like her usually ended up with investment bankers and not small-time accountants and she’d say that men like him ended up with supermodels and not women like her. She was truly one in a million. She openly loved him for his looks, body and what she called “the Bilal thing”. She made him feel unique and one in a million too.

With Maha things had always been tense. Maha was also much more self-absorbed to allow an insecure husband too close. She was also Bilal’s polar opposite and of course that didn’t help their relationship ever.

He saw her coming into the kitchen as he was finishing a bowl of cereal.

“Welcome back, Madam!” He said pleasantly.

She blushed a little and felt good that they could still talk without feeling extremely awkward. Bilal had become unpredictable and sometimes it hurt that because of their past she couldn’t have him as a friend.

“Thank you”, she said matching his tone, “Been back for four days but you make so many quick, big business moves that don’t notice small-time doctors anymore”.

He laughed. It was so hard to stop loving Tanya and wishing for the world to change completely so she could be his.

“You’re not small-time”, he remarked, “Aren’t you competing in the match?”

“Competing is a rich word”, she didn’t mean to sound so hopeless but couldn’t keep the familiar despondency from her voice, “I’d be lucky if people even look at my application twice”.

Life hadn’t been fair to her either, he thought looking at his young ex-girlfriend. She had found love again but it looked like it had come at the expense of a lot of peace and dignity.

“You don’t give up”, he said seriously, “Don’t give up! Nothing is stronger than you”.

She was quiet and looking at the ground. She felt like crying and talking to someone about all the problems, mental and financial and even emotional, that consumed her but were so closely related to Azhar that speaking with him would only lead to making Azhar guilty of being responsible for it all.

“I know”, then she said suddenly, “Why doesn’t Ami like me? What have I done? Married Azhar? It’s not fair”.

He sighed.

“Come on,” he said, walking towards the door. “Let’s go for a walk”.

As they walked down the neighborhood Tanya felt better. She got so claustrophobic in that house sometimes that nothing made her feel better.

“Ami doesn’t like you for many reasons”, he said suddenly, “None of them concern you. Ignore her as much as you can. She’s coming with us to Lahore for a few weeks. Then you’ll be leaving for the USA shortly….”

“I’m not leaving for anywhere, Bilal”, she said louder than she had intended to, “I’m not going anywhere. I haven’t matched yet. This could be my home forever. My husband doesn’t have a steady job. He has an extremely temperamental streak and he hasn’t been able to come off of this last antidepressant that we’ve been trying to wean him off of for months. He is becoming more depressed with all the setbacks. Nothing is working out for us. Nothing! But you know that’s in Allah’s hands. Our provisions, our careers, money, and the future. But is it so hard for you and your family to be nice to us? Is it so hard? I’m baffled at the lack of civility, politeness and just general niceness. Really, Bilal, that house feels haunted and infested with toxicity”.

He was quiet. Tanya had finally felt what everyone knew. They were a toxic and sad family. But it wasn’t Nighat’s fault. All of it wasn’t Nighat’s fault.

“Tanya! I want to tell you some things about Ami but she won’t like it. She’s a proud woman and doesn’t want people sympathizing with her but sometimes when you’ve had a bad life, it changes you. Abuse changes you. When you hit a child he learns to hit others to drive in a point. When you hit a woman she learns to hurt others to drive a point. Don’t judge Ami very harshly. I know she looks like quite the villain but she is really the most helpless of us all. She takes it out on people and puts up a tough exterior. But……” he stopped abruptly, “Just forgive her. For me. For Azhar. Can you do that?”

Many suspicions that she had watching Sabir’s behavior were confirmed by this. She realized Bilal had told her what he needed to without using many words.

She looked at him. In a moment of sudden flashbacks of her past with him she felt closer to him than she had in months. He had grown distant and silent. He had changed. He had almost transformed. He had become someone who had nothing to lose hence nothing to fear.

“Thanks for confiding in me”, she said gratefully, “Gives me a lot to think about. If this is all true then I won’t hold it against her”.

“Good girl!” He said, smiling slightly, “You’re above it all anyway cuz you’re Duchess Tanya.”

She knew he was teasing her so joined in,

“Queen!” She corrected him cheekily, “Queen Tanya!”

“Listen!” He said, laughing now, “If it was up to Azhar he would’ve crowned you by now and had all of us swear allegiance to you. That guy probably kisses your ring every night”.

They both laughed loudly.

CHAPTER 168:

Nighat and Bilal left with Maha and the kids. The house got very quiet but there was a peace in the silence. Tanya found small projects around the house and kept herself busy. She took care of all the plants and really started investing in learning cooking again. Soon she was cooking all the meals and it became a hobby of sorts.

“What’s cooking?” Someone held her from behind as she was stooped over the chicken she had made and sniffing at it to detect any weird lingering smells.

She laughed before turning around and said,

“Just chicken”.

“Anything you cook shouldn’t ever come with the prefix “just””, he said, kissing her.

Sabir didn’t eat with them anymore. He had isolated himself to his room and usually Khalil gave him his meals.

Hashir and Aman had gone to Islamabad for a few days to be with their cousins.

Overall this was the most blissful her marriage had been in this home so far and she was loving it.

But time flies when you’re having fun and before long March came. Nighat had come back just the night before from Lahore and looked like she had not only gained some weight but also appeared to be in excellent spirits. She brought presents for everyone and brought several for Tanya. Tanya knew that Maha was likely behind the presents as they were very in line with Tanya’s taste but accepted them gratefully and with many thanks.

March had been a stressful month for Tanya. She dreaded the match and felt like hope was slipping away. She had had only three interviews and so her chances weren’t great. She had made the rank order list with great realism but despite her immense realism, a tiny hope refused to go out. That hope scared her. She knew it would be very bad for her morale if she didn’t make it even though she knew she couldn’t. Somehow this whole line of wondering and thinking consumed her much worse than any miscarriage that she had had so far.

She woke up the next morning and opened her email. She hadn’t slept at all the night before and had kept Azhar awake too. She logged in and…..

“Azhar! Azhar!” She shook him forcefully and when he didn’t get up she started pounding on him.

“Whoa! Whoa!” He woke up, disoriented and delirious at being woken up like this and yelled, “Tanya! You really need to watch yourself. You’re hurting…..”

Before he could finish his sentence she had kissed him full on the mouth and kept kissing.

“This looks like the new way to get me in the mood”, he laughed as he took her in his arms, “What gives, imp?”

“You won’t believe it. All your prayers have been answered. I matched. In that hospital in the Bronx. My number one choice. I matched”.

Azhar looked at her for a few minutes like someone had hit him across his head but then he got up from the bed and started circling it.

“Really? Really? That’s fabulous! Gosh! This is like the biggest news since Hamza was born”.

“Oh God!” Tanya said swinging by his neck, “Oh thank you, Allah Mian!”

Azhar picked her up.

“This is just the most fantastic news, Taanu! Call your mom. She deserves to hear it first of all”.

She called Asma and of course it was all so emotional besides being the huge celebration that it was. Tanya’s dad had envisioned this for her for some day and that day was finally here.

They hung up, beaming.

“Who are you calling now?” He asked, surprised at how quickly she had started to make the next call.

“Your Billu!” She teased him.

Happily he came over.

“Billu! Tanya matched. In her first choice. This is so so awesome. Wish you were here. Then we could go to the new coffee shop in Marriott…..”

Tanya, sensing that Bilal could become the highlight any minute of this whole situation, immediately chimed in,

“Where’s Maha and kids?”

Soon they all appeared next to him.

“I’m so happy”, Maha said, looking sleepy, “Azhar’s voice woke me up”.

They all laughed and chit chatted for a long time, Maha mentioning every now and then that it was for the best that if Tanya had to match anywhere it was New York City since that’s where all the neat shopping is.

After talking for about an hour they hung up.

Azhar looked at her with a twinkle in his eye,

“Ready to bell the cat?”

“Yes”, she giggled.

They went out. Nighat was apparently in her room.

“Ami!” Azhar called. “Ami!”

She appeared.

“Tanya matched”. Azhar said grinning from ear to ear.

Nighat felt like the walls were closing in on her.

CHAPTER 169:

Hell had frozen over the day Tanya matched. Not only had Nighat stopped talking to her completely, she had also isolated herself to her room. When she came out to eat or get something, Tanya could see that she threw hateful glances her way.

She had had a lot of clarity after her conversation with Bilal but realized that knowing her mother-in-law’s past and forgiving her for the moral assault that she had reserved to dish out to Tanya were two different things and it was hard to have any altruism for Nighat.

Nighat had marred the whole excitement of the match and had been stoic when Azhar had told her the news. She had returned to her room after hearing the news and hadn’t come out for two days. Even for Azhar this was an unexpected reaction.

As she was getting milk from the fridge for coffee she heard a rustling behind her.

Nighat was looking for something from a cabinet. She didn’t find it and looked annoyed.

Tanya remembered she had lupus and sometimes needed ibuprofen.

“Do you need something?” She asked, scared to speak.

“No!” She said shortly.

“Ami!”

“Tanya, please!” She said in a tired voice. “What do you want? You’ve defeated me. I’m losing my son. My son who is my pride and joy. No one can understand what Azhar is to me. May be when you’ll become a mother you’ll know”.

She left.

And just like that June was upon them. They were leaving in a week. Bilal and Maha had come back to Karachi and Hashir had moved to Lahore for the time being. His graduation was a few weeks before his official move and he was ready to handle the Lahore side of things.

Tanya had packed most of their things. She had already booked an apartment over the phone and they were staying at an air BnB for the first two weeks. It was all so surreal and Azhar’s excitement was contagious.

Nighat hadn’t spoken to her after that day when they had briefly spoken in the kitchen. She had withdrawn visibly from Azhar also. Maha and Bilal looked like the distance from this environment had done them good.

“I’ll miss you guys”, Maha said wistfully, “Really being a doctor is so cool. You’re going places and I’m going to rot in this hellhole”.

Tanya smiled,

“How’re you guys now?”

“Bilal and I?” Maha asked, disinterested in this subject, “About the same. Just better at playing nice”.

Tanya was quiet.

“Maha! I don’t want to sound like Azhar and I know you don’t like people advising you but is marriage counseling any good?”

“We did that”, Maha said, “in Lahore. For almost the entire time we were there we did it. With two therapists. Joint and separate sessions. An unraveling of the trauma that this marriage has been just for the therapist to then put it all together and say that we are right to consider divorce”.

She had grown bitter. Bilal had become so involved in his business that she wondered if this was an escape strategy. But she didn’t have an escape and sometimes it weighed heavily on her.

The night before their flight Nighat came to their room,

“Are you all packed?” She asked.

“Yes”. Azhar answered briefly. He wasn’t exactly loving her attitude towards them.

“Azhar!” She said, her voice quivering, “I cannot curse you because you’re my child but don’t pray and prostrate and then hurt your parents. They don’t go together”.

“I have nothing to say to you, Ami!” He said quietly, zipping up his carryon. “You haven’t spoken with us in weeks. We are flying tomorrow. I have nothing to say. I’m not leaving this place with any sadness. I’m leaving it all here. I’m happy I’m going. I’ll only think of my brothers, Hamza, Haifa and Maha. No one else”.

Nighat stood in the doorway, ringing her hands and looking at him morosely. Then she turned to Tanya,

“I can’t wish ill on him but remember my words! You are separating a child from his mother. My favorite child. My most precious boy. You won’t ever find happiness. You won’t ever be happy. I wish you cry for happiness and you don’t have it”.

“You don’t realize, Ami!” Azhar said, quietly still, “That when you curse her, you curse me too. Her happiness is my happiness. If she isn’t happy, then how can I be happy?”

Nighat stood at the threshold for many minutes and then turned around and left.

The morning of their departure was another uneventful day in the diary of their marriage so far. They got up, Maha fixed their breakfast and they sat in the car.

Asma and her siblings were coming to see them off at the airport.

As they got in the car she saw another car stopping outside and Hashir coming out.

“Hashir!!!!” Azhar screamed and limped in his direction. Hashir ran forward and hugged Azhar. Aman and Bilal were still loading some bags in the car and they were totally surprised by Hashir coming too.

“Couldn’t not see you before you left for God knows how many days”, Hashir said, emotional and elated at his brother moving to the USA.

Moments like these always made him sad. Why couldn’t Ami and Abu share in the joy a little? They were leaving for may be three years at least. Was it so necessary to hate on Tanya some more right the night before? Azhar loved his brothers with a fierceness but like everyone, he wanted his parents too. Was it too much to ask?

The four brothers hugged like old friends. As they were sitting in the car, Hashir offered to have Maha and the kids drive with him to the airport to say goodbye another time before Tanya and Azhar took off.

So Maha decided to take Tanya and kids in Hashir’s car and the four brothers rode together, Bilal driving as usual.

“Guys!” Bilal said, “We are growing up. Let’s not grow apart”.

“Never!” Azhar and Aman said in unison.

“Azhar! You and Tanya have to be here next year because I’m trying to get married”. Hashir announced.

“I’ve met her”, Bilal winked at Azhar, “Hashir’s secret fiancé! Very pretty”.

“She’s pretty, man”, Hashir said, awed by his brother’s approval. “I mean no offense to your wives but Tanya could be taller and Maha could be shorter. Really Simrah is perfect”.

“Everyone thinks their girl is perfect”, Azhar said, rolling his eyes.

“No”, Bilal said, “This one is really beautiful. Hashir has a good eye”.

“Better than Tanya?” Azhar challenged.

Bilal, Hashir and Aman laughed.

“Tanya is okay, Azhar”, Aman said, laughing the loudest, “She isn’t pretty. She’s like a different type. She’s not traditionally pretty. Hashir’s fiancé? Wow!”

“Do you have a picture of her or do you just paint her mental portraits for everyone?” Azhar asked sarcastically.

“Here”, Hashir whipped out his phone and the screen saver was of him and one of the most gorgeous girls Azhar had ever seen.

“Wow! Wow! Wow!” He said appreciatively, “This car just got really hot”.

The four brothers laughed and congratulated Hashir.

They said goodbye a million times and still couldn’t get enough of their families. In a rare extremely emotional moment Tanya even hugged Bilal. He was awkward at first but then laughed and remarked on how she had been crushing everyone’s bones and that Azhar should take her away.

Amidst tears, laughter and many prayers, Azhar and Tanya left for New York, the city that never sleeps.

CHAPTER 170:

When they landed at JFK airport seventeen hours later, their exhaustion was mainly mental.

Their last few minutes in Pakistan with their family were precious and had only served to signify Nighat and Sabir’s absence. The amount of love that they had both felt from their families was incredible.

They grabbed a cab and went to their air BnB. After depositing their extensive luggge they took off for a meal.

Two weeks flew by. There was so much to do in Manhattan that Azhar was constantly mesmerized by everything. Even though Karachi is very similar and has a very similar vibe with loads of culture and diversity, New York City still hosts ten times of what Karachi has and is just that much more phenomenal.

He kept marveling at how the trains were so efficient and how people were so polite even though he had heard many things about New York’s inherent rudeness. Tanya had to agree with him. New York is rumored to be rude just as Karachi is rumored to be also but they both are the most accepting and accommodating.

Two weeks later, one fine morning, they were given the keys to their apartment as the previous tenants moved out and it was cleaned to perfection. It was a prewar building that had been renovated but due to rent control it was very cheap compared to the amazing apartment they had scored. It was a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment with a spacious family room, a dirty kitchen in addition to their kitchen, a laundry room in the basement and a park right across the street at a short walk. The building was run by Jewish twin brothers who had been extremely generous in negotiating rent even though it was very reasonable and had also changed the flooring in the one of the bedrooms when Tanya requested. They had even scoured for an air conditioner for them and had graciously given both Azhar and Tanya a ride to the motor vehicle department to get their learning licenses. They had then introduced them to a driving instructor who turned out to be a Nigerian Muslim and the most fearless instructor you could ask for. Within two weeks both Azhar and Tanya had been driving quite well in the Bronx and took the train for their visits to the city. They had also invested in a 1995 Toyota Camry and even though the car was old it was very loved by the previous owner.

But nothing, not even the thrill of the first time she drove on her own in a new city could equal the joy and pride that she had felt when she had first stepped into her new home. That moment became unforgettable for Tanya and a part of her felt like this apartment was going to become something like a family.

They were surrounded by Armenian, Georgian, Romanian and Croatian people. They had a synagogue right across the street from them and therefore a large number of people were Jewish. There was a convenience store just at ten steps and if you walked for ten minutes a huge market emerged that had grocery stores, halal stores and many small businesses.

As always, Azhar’s first obsessive search was for the mosque. He was thrilled to find three mosques in the area, one Pakistani, one Turkish and one Somalian. His love for mosque and salah wasn’t a secret to Tanya but to see him always so thrilled to find Muslims, celebrate small Muslim things and stay so close to religion never lost its fascination and attraction. He spent the first ten days after moving into their new apartment blessing it and saying many Quran versus in various parts of the apartment. He donated money to the mosque every Friday as a way to ward off evil and contribute to the community. He was environmentally very savvy and before long had partnered up with the owners of the apartment to have blue garbage cans delivered to every apartment and a recycle company signed up with them also. Soon the same company was also making sure that paper products from the mosque were recycled with due respect in case some sacred verse ended up being on them.

This is the life I always wanted, she thought with overwhelming gratitude as she set the table for dinner, her traditional dinner of rice, lentils and potato curry simmering on the stove and Azhar watching an old Dwayne Johnson movie on his laptop. This is the life I always wanted.

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