He walked down 42nd street. There was a man who picked up a woman in his arms, the pendant around her neck sparkling like the rainbow in the light. He realized it was them , Azhar and Tanya!
He looked down at himself then looked at his arms. Tanya wasn’t there. He squinted at the vision in front of him, reminding him of a Thanksgiving just a few years ago when the most beautiful girl was in his arms all the time. The man and his beautiful girl had disappeared in a puff of smoke.
He frowned! He had never imagined things before. Sometimes when he was in the ICU after the accident he would imagine Tanya standing next to him. And then his hallucinations had come true. Not this time! This time it was all going to be alone and lonely.
He passed Macy’s and wanted to peak in and see if she was standing in front of one of the scarf sections trying on different scarves, draping them in many different ways, sashaying back and forth before the floor length mirror and critically appraising herself. Then catching him looking at her with a smile in his eyes and blushing while punching him. She wasn’t there.
A woman was coming down purposefully Columbus Circle and he watched her gait, light and bouncy, so much like the woman he loved with a fierce passion. She took a quick turn at a breakfast cafe and he was jolted back to his senses.
He woke up, drenched in sweat as he felt Tanya’s light body pushing into his chest, her seductive laugh in his ear, her breath rising in tiny circles and creating a mist that wouldn’t clear. She wasn’t there.
“You know, Taanu, I don’t like it when you throw wet towels on the bed”, he scolded her lightly, knowing she wasn’t there but it felt good to continue talking to her, picking up the towel that he had just thrown on the bed after his evening shower.
He was eating a solitary meal of a chicken gyro and while looking at its middle eastern contents he was reminded of the chat that he had once tried to eat with her. He lost his appetite as her vivacious laughter reverberated around him.
He played “Kiss the Rain” and wondered if Tanya listened to it too. This was the first song they had shared. Did she remember that?
“Always listening to that one hit wonder!” He heard her laughing voice.
He watched her dancing to “When you’re gone” and her small body made large shadows on the walls of his temporary apartment that he shared with two other guys. He wondered if she imagined shadows on her walls too.
In moments of clarity he asked himself if this was the end. If she was gone forever. If their love story had ended.
In moments of greater clarity he knew they were done.
He lost interest in the work that he had been excelling at. Someone called him from the adoption agency and he didn’t pick up.
What’s the point? He thought bitterly. I don’t want little kids to sink with this ship.
Sometimes he imagined being in another accident and Tanya coming to see him. And every bad memory melting to make room for new things. Of new hope and new love.
Bilal called him many times but he didn’t pick up. He didn’t want to hate him. Hating Tanya was easy. Her crime was so obvious. Hating Bilal wasn’t. He was a victim too.
He knew Nighat called him every now and then and he wanted to ask her what sadistic pleasure was made possible for her by creating this chaos in the calm of his new life. But he didn’t have the energy.
Before long he had lost his job. Before long he was spiraling again. Before long he knew that he needed to get out of there. He dialed a number,
“The last thing I wanted was to ask my wife’s former lover how he’d like to explain himself for setting me up. But I have to know. Because you are not just another man. You’re mine. It’s hard to give you up, Bilal! Harder than giving up Tanya! But may be when I talk to you there will be something that will make it all easy. Giving you up will become easy also. Some sinister fact in this dirt has to make it easier”.
Tears rolled down his cheeks at hearing Azhar’s voice.
“Whenever you want. Wherever you want”.
“Can you meet me at the beach tomorrow? My flight is landing at 4. Can you meet me at 6? I don’t want to go home. Don’t tell anyone I’m coming”.
“I’ll be there”.
He watched the athletic body of his once-vibrant brother appear against a background of traffic and dust. He was wearing clothes that he used to wear. A crew neck shirt with faded jeans. He looked like the old Bilal. He had been caring for himself and it showed. He had found some peace in getting his body back in shape.
I guess that’s what happens when you can’t control much else, Azhar thought, You try to control the things you can.
He was tall and very good looking. In a way that Azhar never was even though Azhar was generally considered the better looking of the two . He had smoldering eyes and a dimpled chin. In moments of fatigue his eyes took a blackish brown color that was just as endearing as their natural brown. Sometimes they were hazel. Sometimes they were just like Nighat’s.
He had an easy, sexy mannerism that worked well to hide years of panic attacks and anxiety. He laughed loudly trying to drown out the many voices that threatened to take his peace away.
He walked much like Tanya and it was easy to see how they had been so much in love with each other. Come to think of it, she was like him. A lot. The same natural charisma, the same sexiness that oozed from their eyes and mouths. The same devil-may-care attitude. They were like two kindred souls, separated by a wicked witch, and turned wicked themselves through the processes of time and love.
Bilal! The brother who put all other brothers to shame. His wife’s old flame. A piece of this sick trifecta.
“Hey”, Bilal came up to him and gently said.
Azhar didn’t realize that he had been watching him for so long. It was difficult to look away. He had thought it would be hard to look at him.
“Azhar! I’m sorry.”, he said, choking on his words.
Azhar tore his eyes from Bilal and looked at the waves. This place shouldn’t have been chosen to end it, he thought angrily, this was our happy place.
“Bilal!” He said, more calmly than he felt. “I asked Tanya questions but she has lost my trust. You have it. So don’t lie because if everyone will lie I will go crazy”.
“I won’t lie”, Bilal said, looking at him with surprise, “Why would I lie? And why do you think Tanya lied? That’s all the truth. If she didn’t deny that she and I knew each other then what else is left?”
Azhar laughed. Bilal had never been on the receiving end of his cold, loud, feelingless laugh so it was strange to hear it.
He kept laughing. These idiots, he thought, they think that’s the whole problem. That two gutless people loved each other and gave up each other.
He finally stopped.
“You think”, he said, his gray eyes darker than their usual lighter shade, “That that’s my problem that you were my wife’s lover? You think that is what’s killing me inside? You think that’s what’s making me take quick short breaths that never fill my lungs with enough air?”
Bilal stared at him.
“No, Billu”, he said, shaking his head and then putting his head in his hands, “No! That’s not the problem. Not by a long shot. That’s your problem that you love my wife. That’s not my problem. It’s your problem that you’re so in love with her that you haven’t been able to play house properly with your own wife”.
Bilal was embarrassed. He had thought Azhar would yell and scream. But Azhar believed in punishing. He didn’t forgive.
“So tell me what happened? How did Tanya come to marry me? Start from where I was unconscious and she came to see me the first time”.
“She married you because she fell in love with you”, Bilal said, his temper rising at Azhar’s incessant demand to know some version of truth that wasn’t even real. “She fell in love with you”.
“How did it make you feel when she fell in love with me? I told you that night when we first kissed. How did you feel?”
“I won’t answer, Azhar”, he said heatedly, “You’re crossing a line. You’re doubting her and you’re doubting me. And I won’t be yours to order according to your whim”.
“You have to answer”, Azhar said, dangerously quiet, “If you ever want to see me again, answer all my questions.”
They were quiet for many minutes. The sun shifted its position reminding them that soon it will be dark. The waves rose and crashed louder. Some carefree college kids were frolicking on the sand and a girl emerged from the water dripping and toweling herself off, reminding both brothers of Tanya.
“I called her to see you. She then fell in love with you. I never forced her to marry you if that’s what you’re asking”.
“Hmm”, Azhar breathed, “I wonder why she chose me. What would be the incentive? Did you question her motive ever? Did you ever wonder why a girl like her would marry a guy like me who came out of the hospital a mere shadow of his former self?”
“No”, Bilal said, “She fell in love with me too. And I was a nobody. Azhar! She loves without a qualifier. That’s her fault and her beauty. But don’t punish her for loving without a reason. She loved me without a reason and loved you without a reason too”.
“I don’t think she loved me without a reason”, Azhar said, pondering, “I think there was a motive. She wanted to get even with Ami. Did you ever suspect that?”
“No! Never!” He said truthfully.
“Do you think she married me for pity?”
“No! No! I wanted her to say yes to you. I tried to convince her but she wouldn’t agree. Not until she wanted to”.
Azhar looked at him,
“Why did you try to convince her?”
“What do you mean? You were crazy about her”.
“I was”, Azhar shrugged, “But it’s very unusual that an ex boyfriend would try to convince his girlfriend to marry his brother. Is it not?”
Bilal bit his lip. He wanted to smack Azhar for interrogating him like that.
“Azhar!” He said, his heart sinking at the thought of how they could never again be the brothers they were, “If it was possible I would erase my past. If it was possible. But I can’t. And I don’t know how to say why I didn’t tell you but your depression threatened to take you from us and I never had the heart to tell you….”
Azhar raised a hand,
“Bilal! Listen! Just listen because it is possible that this is the last time you’re seeing me. So I want to end this where we all understand each other. I don’t care about Tanya. She has disappointed me as only she could. She was a piece of my soul, Bilal, so her deception has changed my soul. You’re my blood and so your deception will change other things.
May be you think I’m upset about the fact that she used to be your girlfriend. May be you think I’m upset because my ego was hurt. May be you think that I’m feeling a little second fiddle. May be you think I feel like I own her and how dare she have a past! None of that, believe me when I say this, none of that is what’s eating at me.
I knew she had a past when I married her. She had been forthcoming. If I told you how many times I hated the man who made her cry you’d think it’s a miracle that I still love you after knowing you are that man. If I told you how I tried to compete with him in my mind knowing how big a deal he was to her you’d think I have low self-esteem. Her past wasn’t a secret. She never made a secret of it to me.
May be you thought that I wouldn’t have conquered heaven and earth to make her mine if Ami hadn’t agreed. Ami’s agreement wouldn’t have made a difference either way. If Tanya wanted me I would’ve become hers anyway.
May be you thought that I wouldn’t have married her if I had found out that she was your former lover. If I had known her and she had said that now she loved me I would’ve taken her shamelessly. I would’ve felt no shame in claiming my love. Victory in love comes to those who dare!
That’s where you guys don’t know me. I’m not you. You left her for Ami. I made her mine as soon as she asked. Her past never mattered to me. And the man in her past wouldn’t have mattered to me eventually if I believed that she truly loved me.
That’s where the confusion is so I’m clearing it. She married me under false pretenses, kept up a lie, and was in cahoots with you. Marriage usually has a motive. It’s not like love that it doesn’t need a qualifier. Marriage needs a qualifier. Either her reason was pity for me or it was a vendetta against Ami or even may be against you. Who knows? But you all deceived me and that is why you and I can be no more”.
Time stopped! Clocks stopped moving. The sun and the moon forgot their rotation and so it was always a weird time. The air stood still. People froze in their places. Time stopped! It stopped where Azhar had left the apartment and asked her to not wait for him.
He had been cruel to her. Very cruel. If he had to go and if he wanted her to not wait for him then he should’ve taken all the kisses too that he had burned through her skin. He should’ve taken the love that branded her. He should’ve taken his scent with him. He should’ve taken every last stamp of his ownership with him. How cruel! Azhar wasn’t forgiving. He believed in punishment. So he was punishing her.
His arms pulled her in as she was sleeping. She laughed lightly.
“Are you back?” She moaned.
“Couldn’t stay apart for too long”, he whispered.
She nestled deeper into his arms. When she woke up in the morning his side of the bed was untouched and unwrinkled.
Someone asked her if she could come to a party and she was so lonely that she said yes. Then they asked about her plus one. She declined the invite.
She ate cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every joy that the body craved left her with him. So food also didn’t taste good. Just cereal! Bland, essential and raw. It felt like atonement.
She didn’t tell anyone. Sarah was getting married in eight months. Her fellowship was demanding. She didn’t have time to open her wound to others so they could sympathize. Sympathy never helped. It just made the wound get deeper.
Someone asked if she was married and she said yes. Then went back to tell them that she wasn’t. Then decided to tell them that she was probably separated but essentially married. Relationship statuses! She laughed to herself. I will spend my entire life defining what my status is. In a relationship? Single? Separated? Married? Divorced? Dead but in love?
On her days off she busied herself with the mosque and taught Urdu there. Many Pakistanis kids came. Her eyes searched for him. He didn’t return her phone calls or texts. He didn’t come to the mosque anymore. Where was he?
Someone called her,
“Dr. Azhar Hussain.”
“Sorry, Dr. Hussain”, the woman apologized. “I’m Nelly Bishop from the adoption agency. Your big day is approaching”.
And then she remembered that their son was going to be here any day.
“Oh yeah”! She smiled, “When is it?”
She looked for a nanny and found a Pakistani woman who agreed to live-in with her.
And so one morning she went to a beautiful children’s hospital in Manhattan to claim her son.
She smiled as Noah’s mother handed him the baby.
“Where’s your husband?” Amber asked.
“We are temporarily separated”, the words got stuck in her throat but she said them finally. She felt like a fraud when she said it was temporary but for some reason that word seemed very important. The woman smiled,
“Doesn’t change my decision at all”.
She was grateful. At least someone trusted her.
As she was leaving she saw some pretty girl clothes on a cot next to Noah’s.
“Amber!” She addressed his mother, “Are you rooming with someone?”.
“No”, Amber smiled a sad smile, “Those are Noah’s twin sister’s clothes”.
She was stunned for a second. She hadn’t been so much in touch with Amber but they had known that she would be one of the people whose kid they might get.
“You were expecting twins?”
“Yes”, she said sadly. Tears rolled down her eyes, “yes! I have twins. But my girl! She doesn’t have one arm”.
Grief is in abundance, she thought, suddenly nauseated at the meanness of fate.
“I’m homeless”, Amber said, hiccuping slightly now. “And she will need medical attention. But who would want it?”
The nurse brought the baby out after a bath.
She was a beautiful baby. She had gray eyes with pink cheeks. She was only a few hours old but looked at Tanya’s face with a curiosity that made her look older. Noah, so much like his sister, immediately moved his hand towards her.
“They’re twins”, Tanya said, like in a trance, “We can’t separate them”.
“But who would want her?” Amber shook her head sadly, “Tanya! Who would want her? Besides, that thing about twins is a myth. Noah wouldn’t even know he had a twin”.
No, she thought, it’s not a myth. I’m separated from my twin and now I keep looking for the other half of my heart and my soul.
She talked to the social worker. They drew up papers. They had many meetings with many specialists and finally, three days later, Noah and Shanzay came home with Tanya.
“I don’t get it”, she said, confused and irritated.
“What part of it?” He asked, equally irritable.
“I don’t get it”, she screamed. “I don’t get this whole story. None of it. No part of it. You make me sick”.
She sat down and sobbed uncontrollably. The balance of loss had gotten heavier. He had never been hers but was he still Tanya’s?
“Maha!” He knelt in front of her, “I lied. All my life with you I lied. I can’t lie anymore. I don’t love you. Not because you’re not awesome. Because you are. Your honesty and truth kept this marriage relatively pure. But this whole sham! I can’t keep it up anymore”.
She looked around their marital room. There were pictures of their wedding, blown up to life sized images, smiling down at them sinisterly, even then the two strangers in them looking awkward and uncomfortable with the program.
The years of perseverance had come to an end. Finally Bilal’s truth and Maha’s truth were the same. Finally they could both move away.
But something wasn’t right, she thought, he thinks that this is his noble gesture for our marriage? That he’ll kick me out and I’ll go and he’ll think that he did me a favor?
“Bilal! Is Tanya also in love with you still?”
“No”, he said, his voice hollow and distant, “No”.
“Serves you right”, she said bitterly. “Serves you right”.
She packed her bags and left. Nighat watched her go. Then she asked Bilal what happened.
“You know what happened”, he snapped.
She was quiet. Maha was dispensable to her.
“Ami! Why did you? Why did you?” He asked, almost crying. “You finally took Azhar from me”.
She looked at him coldly.
“Azhar is entitled to the truth. I’m glad I told him. And anyway, Tanya never deserved him”.
Nothing made sense anymore. His panic had come back in full force. His anxiety seemed to threaten his peace all the time. Insomnia haunted him. Dark thoughts of how much hate he had seen and internalized dominated him.
He had never wanted to be with Maha but now divorce seemed sinister and scary. He had become afraid of losing his wife who seemed to be his anchor.
“You’re having anxiety again, Bilal”, his therapist said, “With your history, let’s get in touch with your psychiatrist ASAP”.
He was put back on medicine. Nothing had ever worked for the insomnia so nothing worked for it still.
He had no idea where Azhar was. He had walked away abruptly the last time Bilal had seen him at the beach and hadn’t looked back. He had thought of giving him some time but when he had called Azhar two hours later, he didn’t pick up the phone. It had been two months and he hadn’t returned any calls or texts. He hadn’t read the texts either.
He had gone back to the beach. He had panic attacks at the beach but he sat it out, waiting for him. Sometimes he imagined his lean silhouette against the wild sea, his brother wilder than the sea in comparison, Bilal’s biggest champion, the only soul privy to his thousand secrets and the man who was someday to hear of all his horrors that he had witnessed in his mother’s marriage. But he was no more.
He would hear Azhar’s loud voice when someone opened the door. “Tanya”, he’d say. He’d run out of his room and follow his voice but it just echoed in different hallways of the house and just kept getting louder the more Bilal chased it.
He became the little boy he was. Scared, nervous and easy to prey on. Maha called him asking if he’d like to see his kids. He said no. There was no meaning to life without Azhar.
He lay for hours in Azhar’s bed, imagining him next to him, telling Bilal that Ami loved everyone the same or was nasty to everyone the same. His fingers twirled his hair and his head fell on his brother’s shoulder.
“Billu!” Azhar called. He woke up. There was his brother, standing in the doorway, smiling cheekily. “You can sleep anytime you want but right now, the girl who lives at the end of the street, she walks with her dog. Let’s go walk with her”. Bilal got up and walked briskly alongside Azhar, chatting loudly with him when someone grabbed him from behind. It was Aman. He looked frightened and angry.
“Where are you going and who are you talking to?” He asked loudly. “It’s 4 in the morning. Are you going to the mosque?”
“Yes, yes”, Bilal said, feeling stupid, “I was going to the mosque”.
“But Fajr isn’t for another hour. Thank God I was awake. You just walked out”.
He felt dazed.
“Aman! Please sleep with me”, he said, breaking down. “Or take me to Azhar. He always slept with me when I couldn’t sleep”.
Aman didn’t need asking twice. Bilal’s struggles with anxiety weren’t a secret.
He called Azhar many times. He didn’t respond.
You’re so cruel, Azhar! He’d fight with Azhar in solitude. You’re so cruel. I was only watching out for you. Allah will never forgive you for hurting me like this.
Sometimes he’d reason with himself for hours about how it was still too soon for Azhar to forgive him. But he knew something was different. He knew that the absence of Azhar’s usual rage over something so huge was very uniquely conspicuous.
He threw himself into work. He had always been a high-functioning depressed individual. No one, besides Azhar, could tell before that he had so many mental health issues. They had come to the surface once in his childhood when he had witnessed many episodes of violence on his mother and had been shut out of her room for days. Azhar was in Islamabad visiting their cousins and Bilal had felt alone and without recourse. He had major panic and anxiety when Azhar came back. He couldn’t go outside the house. He didn’t want to leave Nighat’s side fearing her dead if she was left alone with Sabir but she didn’t want him by her side. He had missed school for about a year. He had had extensive therapy when Azhar told Arsalan. He had eventually improved but his childhood was forever tainted. Tanya and Azhar had made him light and funny. And then Nighat took Tanya from him. Now Nighat took Tanya from Azhar too.
He traveled to some inner cities in Sind occasionally as they were expanding many projects there. They were all low-budget factories for poor communities and they appreciated the jobs. Bilal loved this project and had found a great partner in Aman for this particular initiative.
He met Maha and the kids every week. On one landmark evening, they both signed their divorce papers and he delivered the words in a monotone to her so there was no confusion for anyone else. She didn’t cry. He came home and sobbed for hours. She was someone to come home to and find familiarity in. But I wasn’t good for her, he tried to soothe himself with reason, she needed to get out of these deathly relations.
Even though she had never been a supportive and particularly affectionate wife, as an ex Maha was a dream. She took him to many therapy appointments and was patient. He felt that just by means of the divorce he had finally given her the freedom she had craved. Was it so bad living with me? He wondered looking at his ex-wife driving the car as he lay exhausted in the backseat after a particularly challenging therapy session.
He didn’t speak to Nighat. He had finally started to harbor the resentment that life had always tried to provoke in him. He didn’t eat any meals at home. Hashir hadn’t been coming to Karachi at all. Aman had moved to a place closer to the new factories in Haiderabad. Their family was broken.
No one knew where Azhar was.
Where is Azhar? She asked herself as she looked at the once-lush garden that she had grown with her son. He’s not with her then why isn’t he with me?
She called him many times.
He picked up once but as soon as she said “Azhar” he hung up.
What is this madness? She asked herself, surprised at it all. I took him from her and he still belongs to her? Don’t I mean anything?
“Where are you looking?” Sabir snarled at her as she tripped on her own step. “The whole family is crazy. One is estranged from his wife, nowhere to be found. One is divorced. One is opening factories in underserved areas. And one is engaged for years and we are finding out now”.
Hashir had told them about his fiancé the night before. He had planned a wedding years ago but she had been accepted at a prestigious business school in London and wanted to complete her courses. She had just returned.
She was quiet. Abuse had become such a dominant part of her life that it had lost its shock and trauma. She got kicked still. Less than before but got kicked anytime he got a chance. She didn’t even wince anymore. She lost the child who represented a little sunshine. A little love. A little peace. What mattered anymore anyway?
In moments of quiet she asked herself if she had been unjust. Surely she had been, she’d tell herself. But because she had never seen justice, she didn’t know how to do it. People had always taken things from her and now she took things from people. The cycle of possession and injustice. The circle of tears and jubilation. The unfairness of the system.
She wandered aimlessly around the house. As always Azhar’s absence had led to more reliving of the past. It had led to more curse words from her husband of decades. It had led to more hitting.
He saw the bruises on her alabaster skin. She had dark circles under her eyes and looked like she was nursing a large gash on her right forearm. He didn’t feel any tender feelings for his mother. She was a monster too. Sabir was a monster and she was too and so they were appropriately matched.
Nighat’s time stood still also. Just like her enemy’s had, thousands of miles away. Her sun and moon stopped circling also. Her earth slipped from underneath her feet also every once in a while. But there was a difference! Tanya didn’t seek revenge ever. Her love for Bilal didn’t know a reason. Her marriage to Azhar was for love. Her move to another part of the world was for her own self more than anything else. So she survived gracefully always. Each time she was born from her ashes, she was a more beautiful Phoenix than before.
The twins were getting bigger and she couldn’t believe it had been four months she had brought them home and six since Azhar left. She had stayed in her old apartment. She had years to go before fellowship would complete and she liked the proximity to the train station and other amenities.
Noah was every bit the boy that only one of the Hussains would’ve had. He was a strong brother who knew when to make way for his sister when she came scooting on her belly towards him. Shanzay needed a lot of intensive early intervention to meet milestones and even though initially she had had a lot of trouble meeting them, once she started holding her neck, most movements became easier for her.
She spent her entire time either gushing over her kids or taking them to therapies. Noah was also born with some orthopedic anomalies and required some occupational and physical therapy. Her time was so consumed by the needs of her kids that Azhar sometimes seemed a distant memory.
But sometimes, when night was clearing up to make room for the day, she’d hear his voice in her ear, his arm around her slim body, his breath on her neck.
“I miss you!”
“Then come back”.
“I feel like a fool. I doubted you and now I can’t see you in the eye”.
“You won’t have to see me in the eye. I’ll kiss you and we won’t have to open our eyes ever”.
He’d laugh. His hoarse, clear laugh. Then a cold would freeze her from the inside.
Time moved. Slowly and like it always does regardless of how it affects the people it’s touching. Time is ruthless in its indifference. It doesn’t stop. It keeps moving.
Soon it had been seven months since Azhar had left her.
“Don’t tell her I come here”, he growled, “I won’t see you then either”.
“I won’t”, Arsalan said easily, “I’m not telling anyone anything. Nighat would do this, I had never imagined”.
Yes, Azhar thought darkly, no one can imagine that they gave birth to a monster. You’re an idiot, Nanajan, like me! She bit you too, like she bit me.
“She wasn’t always like this”, Arsalan said, his words thick and apologetic, “May be you think we raised her like this. We didn’t”.
“Not everything is nurture”, he said bitterly, “nature accounts for a lot too”.
He knew nothing would convince Azhar. He couldn’t blame him. Nighat’s mad desire to control things that she could had really gotten out of control. But he felt a responsibility towards explaining her to him.
“May be it has become a part of her nature to control and employ any method to gain control. May be when you can’t control much else you control weak people and other women”.
Azhar snorted. He found both Arsalan and Bilal besotted by a witch. His mother was crafty and remorseless. There was no blurring that fact.
“You find it funny? Guess you do! And you have reason to. I can’t blame you. She hasn’t been fair to anyone. And no one has been fair to her except may be, Bilal”.
He didn’t say anything. Bilal’s name evoked pain and anger.
“But she wasn’t always like this”, Arsalan continued, “When she was growing up she wasn’t like this. But she was a baby when she got married so I don’t know”.
“How old was she?”
“She had just turned 18”.
Azhar looked at him in surprise.
“So how old was Abu?”
“Did you know he was almost twice her age?”
Azhar was quiet. Sometimes he detested being born.
“Did Abu know she was half his age?”
“And he still married her? Why? Did they love each other? They had an arranged marriage, right?”
Arsalan sighed. So many questions! Unfortunately no answers or explanations. Just an attempt to explain his daughter better to people who thought she was born evil .
“Who knows why he wanted to marry her? All I know is that I married her to him to exercise control on a child who wanted to become a doctor”.
Azhar got up slowly and came up to Arsalan.
“Who? Who wanted to be a doctor? Which child? Who? Who was it? She wanted to be a doctor? Ami? MY Ami?”
Arsalan nodded. It cost him so much effort to relive the past but it was necessary to tell him what Nighat would never tell anyone.
“Yes! Your Ami! She wanted to be a doctor. She was accepted at Dow. I didn’t let her go. I married her to Sabir weeks later”.
Arsalan looked at his grandson, so like Nighat. And still could never understand his mother. But very few people understood Nighat. Actually just one person understood her. Bilal !
“It’s a long story, Azhar! I don’t remember a lot of it. My ideas of what women should do! What women can do! What women will do! It’s a lot of talking that I’m too old to do now. And frankly, I don’t remember most of my reasoning. All I remember is that my dumb ideas cost Nighat her life.
I could’ve said no, right? I could’ve said no to her dream and that would’ve been punishment enough. But I punished her more. More than she could take. I married her to a man who was not her companion in mind or body. She was miserable but I thought this was a just punishment for going behind my back and submitting applications. I didn’t listen to anyone. Not to her brothers or my wife.
Just punishment? But that’s an oxymoron. How can a punishment be just? Forgiveness is just. Forgiveness heals. Forgiveness fixes. Punishment only makes it worse. Punishments to the innocent and weak is like satisfying our own ego and hubris. They’re never justified. So I punished Nighat thinking I was saving her. But I gave her to a monster. Your father, Azhar, beat her and tortured her when she was a teenager. When she was pregnant. When she was postpartum. And even now! If it wasn’t for Bilal, she would’ve still been getting hit like an animal by another animal. But thankfully, Bilal has been doing a great job of protecting her”.
“You lie”, he roared, “You’re lying! You are all liars. Abu is a meek little thing in front of her. I can believe all of the rest but Abu doesn’t even speak with her”.
“I have no reason to lie”, Arsalan said quietly, “It all incriminates me as much as it incriminates Sabir. I’m not lying”.
“Then why didn’t I ever see it? Why don’t I know it?” He demanded.
“It happened in front of Bilal more whom Sabir always considered the baby and the weak one. And Nighat feared your temper! Blame me for it but she doesn’t want to divorce him because she’s afraid people will talk”.
He collapsed on a couch nearby with his head in his hands.
Bilal’s skepticism and criticism of Sabir howled in his ears. It started to make sense.
“Billu! Did you ever see anything?”
“No! I don’t want to say something that I don’t have firsthand knowledge of but I believe they have very different roles in private. Abu grovels to get sympathy.”
“Azhar!” Arsalan said, “If I were you I’d go back to Tanya. And have my life back. Bilal can be in love with her or not! That’s his problem. But I have seen her and have known her since before she married you. She loves you. She was invested in you like no woman would be if her heart wasn’t in it”.
He listened quietly. Tanya wasn’t his concern anymore when there was so much to know about his own mother.
“Nanajan! Tell me more about Ami!”
“I wish I could. I was one of those disconnected fathers who love their kids but not enough to play with them. Your Nanijan was great with kids. She loved them. She cared for them. You probably remember some of her, right?”
Azhar remembered. An image of one of the most beautiful women came rushing to his mind. His beautiful grandmother! With her petite frame, hazel eyes and a head of chestnut brown hair. She was always ready with a smile, fed them with her hands and cuddled with them at night.
He didn’t realize he was crying.
Arsalan handed him a handkerchief. He took it.
“Sorry”, his voice was thick, “Sometimes I cry thinking how sad this life is”.
“Don’t be sorry for crying”, Arsalan said, tears rolling down his cheeks as he turned to face the window, not able to cry in front of others still after all these years, “Strong men cry. Wish I could cry. I really wish I could cry”.
Azhar got up. He held his grandfather from behind. He put his head on his shoulder like he did when he was a child.
“Nanajan!” He said, crying more freely now, “You can cry now. I won’t tell anyone. If you want to, please cry! I won’t tell anyone”.
Arsalan’s sobs didn’t stop for many minutes.
This house is so quiet, she reflected, like a grave.
She got up and checked on the chicken that Khalil had made before leaving for the weekend. It was just her and Sabir so she figured there won’t be much to do. His mother was ill so she had let him go for the weekend. She felt this was the least anyone could do for a mother who wanted to see her son.
She put it on the stove to warm it before Sabir came home. Bilal had gone to Haiderabad. It was after years that she would be alone with Sabir.
This sinister fact didn’t bother her though. How much life was left anyway? And was she even alive?
She slowly walked out of the kitchen. She caught her reflection in the mirror in the family room. A strange woman looked back. With sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. Suddenly that face transformed into a girl’s. The girl looked back at her intently and smiled. It had been so many days since anyone had smiled at her. Bilal always smiled at her, even when the whole world would deny her. He would still smile at her, talk to her and was always kind. But now he didn’t smile either.
“What happened, Nighat?” The girl asked. “Why are you so sad?”
“I lost something”, Nighat said softly. “I had something and then I lost it”.
“What?” The girl asked innocently. “Can I look for it for you?”
“May be”, Nighat said, startled at kindness from a familiar stranger, “May be”.
“If you let me know what it is that you lost then I can look for it”.
“I think”, Nighat strained her memory, “I lost my mother. Then my children”.
“I can certainly help you”, the girl said optimistically, “Don’t be sad”.
“Wait”, Nighat said, raising her hand to her temple, “There is someone else I lost. A girl!”
“A girl? Was she your child too?”
“No!” Nighat shook her head, “She wasn’t my child. She looked like you. Much like you. Is your name Nighat?”
“Yes it is”, the girl smiled. “Did you lose me?”
“Yes! Yes! I lost you. But then I found you. I swear I found you. You came to me again. Many years later. But you looked different and your name wasn’t Nighat then.”
“Was my name Tanya?”
Nighat stared at her reflection. Yes, she thought, how strange that this girl knows Tanya.
The girl changed her shape. Tanya looked back.
“Ami!” Tanya said, in one of those rare moments when she called her Ami, “Don’t cry”.
“Tanya!” She hiccuped. “Azhar doesn’t want me. I’ve lost him. I don’t know where he is”.
“I don’t know either, Ami”, Tanya said morosely, “I wish I knew. Then we could all live together”.
Nighat started wailing. Tanya too.
She finally realized that there was the smell of burnt chicken in the air. She ran to the kitchen.
Sabir entered at that moment. He came to the kitchen.
“What happened?” He asked urgently.
“The chicken”, she said, lifelessly, “It’s ruined”.
It wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t a big deal at all. But most of the domestic violence that she had suffered at his hands wasn’t in response to big deals ever. It took sleeping in, tripping over, smiling for no reason, speaking to herself, feeding the baby, wearing new clothes to unleash the monster on her. That was all that he needed.
He kicked her. And then kept kicking her. Nighat gasped for air.
“Bilal!” She screamed.
But he wasn’t home.
“No one can come and save you from me”, he said nastily, holding her hair from the back. “Bilal thinks he’ll save you. You’re mine to do whatever I want”.
He let go of her hair and raised his fist to punch her face. She closed her eyes tight.
Moments rushed before her eyes.
Azhar’s birth. The jubilation, the extended stay at her parents. The best part of her marriage.
Bilal’s pregnancy, birth and life. A movie of Sabir’s hatred towards her on repeat.
Hashir and Aman. Growing up to be a replica of their older brothers. Compassionate, strong, feministic to a fault, and so good looking.
Her mother asking her to please Sabir so he softens. Nighat wondering how to tame wild beasts.
Arsalan apologizing for not sending her to medical school. Her tears at the apology. A day late. A dollar short.
And finally Tanya and Maha! The girls who were wronged by her internalized misogyny. The women who were so easy to love. The women who only got hate from their own gender. Two strong women who lived life on their own terms. Maha came through an arranged marriage but refused to live an arranged life. Tanya lost love then won it all back again and then suffered another heartbreak because of Nighat.
Sabir’s fist never came down. That’s strange, she thought as she prepared herself for it, he never thought about how hard it would hit me ever before.
“Ami!” Someone took her in his arms. “Ami!” Someone’s tears drenched her face.
It was Bilal. He had saved her. Once again, Bilal was there when no one was.
If anyone saw Shanzay being a super girl with great navigation around the bed and on the floor, they wouldn’t suspect limb hypoplasia. She was the sweetest and feistiest girl Tanya had ever laid eyes on.
Asma had been staying with Tanya. Sarah was going to get married from New York. Her in-laws were in Connecticut so this was reasonable distance.
Asma was sad at what had happened but she had anticipated it and she knew that Tanya had too. She was very surprised that Tanya wasn’t in a rush to get a divorce. But then, how could she get a divorce if she couldn’t even contact her husband?
“Tanya!” Asma called as she was bent over her laptop working on a presentation, “I know she’s not yours but Shanzay looks so much like you”.
“She’s mine, Mama. She’s all mine. And Noah too. They’re both ours”.
Asma laughed. The kids were beautiful and very playful. At seven months they both looked easily about a year in how tall and healthy they were.
“When can she get a prosthesis?” Asma asked.
“Not yet”, Tanya said, coming over and taking her daughter from Asma’s arms. “Not yet”, she baby-talked. “Right now we have to get bigger and stronger and taller! Right, Shanzoo?”
What’s her life, Asma felt tears coming to her eyes at how elusive happiness had been to her dearest child, what’s her life?
Noah came crawling over. Tanya picked him up too. Surprisingly she was very good with holding both kids at once despite her thin frame. She was almost an expert at it.
Life is good, she thought looking at her kids, if Azhar was here it would’ve been perfect but can’t say it’s bad. Look at them! My babies! I finally have my babies!
People asked her about her husband frequently. Therapists, friends and colleagues. She didn’t know what to say.
Azhar! She said sometimes in quiet moments, come back please. I’m sorry for lying but losing you would’ve killed me so I lied.
Thousands of miles away he woke up, her scent in his breath, his mind filling with images of them together.
You don’t even call anymore, he complained, already forgot me? Won’t even ask how I am? I’ve saved all the texts I didn’t reply to, Taanu! I just hoped you’d keep sending them. But I can see how you’ve left me too.
He sat outside Dow Medical College for hours. He pictured her walking with him to the cafeteria, listening to him chatting nonstop. She’d say something catty sometimes that he didn’t get then. He got it all now. Wow! How stupid was I, he thought. She knew Bilal. She had loved Bilal. But then how could she love me? Is that possible?
The beach became noisier in his ears. Tanya running, Tanya emerging from the waves, Tanya and Azhar making love on the beach in a quiet corner that was all theirs.
A Mardi Gras float went by in his memory. Many gay people asked for rights. The air was hot with love, sex and music. Tanya cheered them until she was hoarse. This was soon after the first miscarriage. He had seen her so animated for the first time after the miscarriage. He asked her, wide-eyed,
“You think gay love is okay?”
“Love is love”, she had said, cheering the next float.
She brought home kids’ books when she was teaching them and they’d go over silly mistakes and laugh for hours. Some infatuated tween boys would give her love cards and obscure love messages. She saved them all. Her love for kids was so tangible that the miscarriages hurt him more for her love not meeting its intended people.
He thought about the kid they were going to adopt. Like many things, his separation from Tanya came with this heartache also. The loss of a child. He could’ve had a child today. One mother was due just a couple months after. She was having a boy.
People had called him from work and wanted to know if he’d come and work for them or would just like to take a break. He wanted to take a break but knew that he couldn’t live in Pakistan when Tanya lived in the USA.
What should I do? He looked at the sky. You guide me!
She signed the papers listlessly. Bilal picked them up and filed them in a smart folder that he had brought with him.
He saw her being quiet and said softly,
“What happened? Are you okay?”
She looked at him with an expression that said it all. Years of disgrace, neglect, abuse and torture had all been divorced. One man had chosen a monster for her. Another man had become that monster. And yet another man had saved her.
The story of my life! She thought bitterly. Weak woman! Weak defenses! Weak life! Weak end! What else is new?
Bilal had taken control. He had told Sabir to leave that day. He was calm throughout but she could see that he was Azhar’s brother and his calm was a way to hide the same anger that Azhar had. He had then hired an attorney, stripped Sabir of all the assets, proved domestic violence in court and convinced her to divorce him. It hadn’t been easy and the last month was traumatic for them all. Hashir and Aman had come home to be with her.
Finally a tear rolled down her cheek. He put his arms around her. He looked like he’d cry too.
“Ami! Don’t cry”, he said, wiping her tears, “Never cry! Never again. May be some kids don’t like it when their parents divorce but for me, this is the best day of my life when my mother can be a free woman”.
She hugged him back.
“Billu!” She said, thinking how his name should’ve just been Billu like Azhar always called him, “You’re my bravest son. The bravest. Your mother is good now. You saved me. I love you so much.”
He tightened his arms around her. They cried together.
“Ami”, he sobbed uncontrollably, “Ami! Please get me Azhar back. I don’t want anything else. Only Azhar!”
She sighed with more tears rolling down her face. Mothers pray for their children to love each other. And what did she do?
“Even if it kills me, I’ll get you Azhar”, she said, looking into his eyes.
She lay in bed next to him. Bilal had terrible anxiety always, made worse by all the trauma that his childhood had gone through. It was a miracle he could function at all.
He had insisted for her to sleep with him. And now his hand was in her hair, twirling a lock.
She knew Azhar saw Arsalan. No one had told her but she had seen signs of Azhar in that house the last time she had visited. He always folded the prayer mat at an unusual angle. She had seen that and had known that he kept in touch with his grandfather.
She texted Arsalan,
“Abu! I signed the papers”.
“Freedom feels weird initially but you’ll get used to it remarkably quick 🙂”.
“Can I give you something to give to that headstrong grandson of yours?”
“Nighat!” He typed. “He won’t see me if he knows that you know that he sees me”.
“I can guarantee that after he reads what I have to say he will not be upset with anyone”.
“Okay! I’m willing to do it for our family”.
“Thank you, Abu! Good night!”
“Good night, Nighat”.
A letter through registered mail was at the door to his modest apartment in a largely blue collar neighborhood of Karachi. He had been interviewing over Skype with many prospective employers and had finally decided to go back to his previous job that was located at Penn Plaza.
He knew the deeper reason to go back was Tanya and staying close to her and hoping for some odd streak of it all to make it easier to forget everything except what they had but it wasn’t easy. He had developed a resentment towards her. First for the lies and then for how easily she gave him up.
What’s new for her in all this? He thought savagely. Lost someone once before. Lost me now. She’s used to it. I’m dying.
He opened the letter. He knew that handwriting. It was of a woman he had never liked but had loved in a part of him. She had given birth to him but then forgot all about him. Some might say she was his mother. He had always thought of her as an enemy who used her kids to her advantage. Or just hated them as she had hated Bilal.
I know you are in Karachi. It’s strange that in this battle of egos, Tanya left the field after I attacked her yet again and still won. It’s strange! But I don’t feel defeated. Strangely, I don’t! If you can believe it, I feel proud of something that my gender has shown me. Do you know what that is? A graceful life. A life of determination, grit and love. A life of chutzpah. A life of poorly calculated moments in favor of love and the sacrifices that it asks for. That’s what she taught me and so I’m happy to know her and proud to call her my daughter-in-law.
I know it would be hard for you because forgiveness is hard for you as it has been hard for me. When no one has been fair then you don’t like to forgive. You like to hold on to small injustices as a way to feel better about the big ones that no one cared about. Life made me bitter. Ask my father or my siblings! I wasn’t always bitter.
I was denied some things. Some things that I had worked hard for and craved for with a yearning that I had hardly ever had for anything else. Then I was given a man. I hadn’t wanted him or asked for him. Then I was given children. Your birth was a deliverance. Bilal’s birth was a result of your father’s brutality to a nineteen year old. I’m not making excuses. But when a girl is raped, she wants to forget it. When she bears a child through it, it becomes hard to forget anything.
You raised your brothers so you know! You know how hard it is to raise kids. I didn’t raise anyone except myself. I raised myself when I was married off to a man twice my age at 18. I was a child who had just given her parents the most important news of her life. And this was the present I got from them! I was shipped away to an unknown land to a man who accepted me as a business prospect. Can I just say that this was the worst deal your grandfather could ever make?
So when I raised myself, I emulated the adults around me. The adult around me was Sabir. He got everything by force, cruelty and conniving. I’m ashamed to say that I learned that too.
I could’ve chosen to be a better person. I didn’t have to be like him. I realize that! I could’ve changed it all. We could’ve been a happy family. May be we wouldn’t have been a whole family but we could’ve been happy. Sometimes “whole” is an illusion. We looked whole to outsiders. But we weren’t whole. We looked happy but were we happy? Guess some of us were. Like my sons! Within themselves they were happy. You made sure Bilal was always happy and you both made sure that Hashir and Aman were happy.
Years of abuse and brutal physical force against my delicate body have made me the woman I am. Bilal says I have internalized misogyny. I didn’t know what that was. But he says I hate women. That I hate my own gender. May be I do. My own gender was not kind to me either. My own gender didn’t want me to report abuse or leave my marriage. My own gender, in Tanya and Maha, was so strong that I got scared. I got angry. Why couldn’t I be like them? Why couldn’t a man love me? My depravity led to the behavior that I have shown and that has ultimately led to the temporary dissolution of your marriage and the permanent dissolution of Bilal’s.
So forgive me if you can. I’ll ask Tanya for forgiveness also. But it’s important that you forgive me. I divorced your father a few days ago. Bilal saved me again. He has been protecting me since he was eight years old.
He shouldn’t have to. A child shouldn’t have to. But this is life. Children save weak men and women because they can’t save themselves.
Bilal misses you a lot. Don’t shut him out. Amidst all the nightmares that his childhood was, you became the morning that brings light and peace. Maha and he aren’t together anymore. He’s lonely and needs his brother.
Lastly, come back! This letter is written by a woman who has been fatigued by time and the sheer foot force that she has had to use to travel through it. So there are no beautiful words to say how much I love you or how desperately I need my son. There are no elaborate expressions to say that Tanya and I both could have had you and I should’ve understood that. I have wronged many people, and most of them I gave birth to so that makes my crime bigger. But, I love you and miss you. Please come back!
He noticed the paper was wet with his tears. He called someone,
Bilal’s voice was enough to change everything back to just like it was before.