The grand old dame sat on a diwan like a queen. Her silver white hair was swept back from her forehead, parted in the middle. An off-white diaphanous dupatta framed her face. Pearls glinted around her throat and in her ears. Her white shararah, the skirt-like dress split in two, wide-cut and embellished with lace and embroidery. It didn’t seem to have a single wrinkle, nor did the embroidered white shirt she wore.
Her voice rang out in the zennanah quarters they’d been brought to, crisp and commanding, ‘How dare you defile my home by bringing this half-caste here? She is nothing to us. Send her back where she came from. She does not belong here.’
Mehru watched her grandmother in mute fascination. Such hatred. What a long time to hold on to something so toxic. Why had she allowed Bibi to bring her here, to these strangers?
‘Ami Begum, please. Lispeth…she’s gone.’
Mehru turned towards her father instinctively when his voice broke, but then, stopped herself. Her mother had died alone, like she’d lived. What good were his tears to her now? He’d chosen to abandon them. The half-caste wife and the half-caste daughter had been traded for a life of comfort and his mother’s approval.
If regrets could change the past, the world would be a different place. Mehru exchanged a glance with Bibi, her sole caretaker since her mother had died three weeks ago.
The room was full of people. All of them, her uncles, aunts and cousins, and she knew none of them. She’d lived in isolation, as an outcast. Which one of these women was her father’s chosen wife? The one he’d lived with every day, while her mother withered away, still in love with him, still waiting for him to make good on his promises.
The familiar anger burnt in her gut. It had been a mistake to come. She turned towards Bibi again, imploring her with her eyes. Please, let’s leave. Bibi shook her head a fraction.
Mehru kept her face carefully blank. No one in that room was going to get the satisfaction of seeing her anguish. Her father stood irresolutely at her side. Struggling to keep her anger and her hurt under control, she stared at her grandmother. There was no softness in her face, or tenderness in any line or wrinkle of her visage. Her eyes were flinty and unrelenting.
‘She looks nothing like you,’ she said. ‘Maybe you aren’t even the father. Who knows with these trashy women? And you brought her daughter into my home. Did you expect me to forget?’
She’d called her mother a whore. Mehru’s whole body reacted. She stepped forward, her mouth open, ready to defend her mother but Bibi was at her side, pulling her back. She squeezed Mehru’s hand in warning. Bibi’s usual calm and beautiful face was rigid and her eyes, the soft brown loving eyes, were hard and flat. She was angry too. Yet, she’d stopped her from jeopardizing the slim chances that they’d be given sanctuary there.
‘You must be accepted in your father’s house, Mehru. So leave your anger and your pride here, at this doorstep when you step outside. I wish there was another way, but with no money, and no protection, what option do we have?’ she’d said.
‘I have no desire to see him, or his family. He hasn’t visited us in months. If he’d come, he’d have known she was ill. He might have been here when she…when she…’
She hadn’t been able to say the dreadful words.
She knew Bibi had written to him. Her mother had too, before she became too ill to even write. Even Mehru had put her pride on the line and written to him. And he still hadn’t come.
‘What is this ‘he’ nonsense? He is your father. Call him Baba as is proper. Make your mother proud over there. Show them what a remarkable young woman our Lispeth raised.’
‘Bibi, since we’re not going anywhere, least of all to impress people I don’t care about in the least, this conversation is useless.’
That was when Bibi’s Durga avatar had taken over and she’d said in that husky voice she used when she was trying to control her ire, ‘Look, young lady, I may be a courtesan who sold her body once, but I’ve always been a woman of integrity. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re mutually exclusive. I made a promise to your dying mother, my best friend, my only friend…’
Then they’d cried again together. They’d lived in the small loft atop Paan Gali, far enough from the inner city to be respectable, and not close enough to posh Lahore to be acceptable. They’d lived there all her life, but suddenly Bibi was nervous. Maybe it had something to do with the landlord coming at odd hours and the other neighbours too. None of the women had come after that first time of condolences but men continued to visit. The argument that had won over Mehru, into this foolhardy plan of visiting her father, was Bibi’s fear. It was unthinkable that she should be afraid, she’d never seen Bibi fear anything. ‘You don’t know the minds of men, my love. You’re young, still so innocent. A woman’s beauty is her best weapon and her worst enemy. I must take you to your father’s house.’
Mehru sighed. Bibi loved dramatic aphorisms. Apparently they got the job done. It was clear that Bibi was afraid for their safety and she was beyond reason or emotional blackmail. Mehru had agreed to come because she’d been left no choice.
She was pulled back into the present as her father put his arm around her protectively. She stiffened.
‘If she goes, I go.’
Mehru almost laughed out loud. Ha! Now? He said that now? Tomorrow is nothing, today is too late; the good lived yesterday.
The words by Marcus Aurelious, echoed in her mind. There were always so many thoughts in her head, bright and dark, some spun like gold and always those horrible little demons which never left her alone. Memories. So many memories of neglect, of betrayal and abandonment, the sense of not belonging, of being unwanted, and worse, her mother’s constant efforts to make her father proud of Mehru.
‘Why don’t you show your father that beautiful poem you wrote?’ her mother would say. There was always something: bring that drawing you did, show him the book you’re reading. He’d look panic-stricken, as if he was afraid his mother would see him petting his daughter and incinerate him with a curse.
‘That’s great. Well done, Mehru. But, some other time I’m in a hurry now…’
He’d always been in a hurry. There were so many little incidents, so many disappointments, his vague looks at her, his guilty furtiveness that had scarred her and ripped at her heart. How long had her mother suffered alone? Did she ever accept in her heart that her husband was never coming back? Or did she till the end hold on to the belief that he loved her?
‘She’s my daughter, Ami Begum,’ her father announced, twenty two years after the fact. Who was he trying to convince? His mother or himself?
‘Please. Don’t do this again. I beg of you.’ His voice was hoarse and his mother probably caught the inflection too.
Her expression changed. Was she willing to relent after all? Her step-mother, discerning the situation took up the banner against Mehru, and said in a tearful voice, ‘Forgive my intrusion Ami Begum, but I cannot remain silent any longer. I cannot allow such an insult to me. I cannot have my husband’s bastard in the same house as my children. My family will not bear this insult in silence. I come from a distinguished bloodline.’
She was attired like Mehru’s grandmother. Except that her clothes were colourful and even more embellished. What did she have that her mother didn’t except for a distinguished bloodline?
‘Lispeth was my wife. Watch your words, Saleha begum,’ he snarled at his wife.
His face was ashen. Was he insulted for her sake or his? Mehru realized she didn’t really care.
Her grandmother, no longer wavering, said, ‘Will you let that woman’s daughter destroy your life like her mother tried to do?’
Her father blinked several times and then said, ‘What do you want me to do, Ami Begum? Haven’t I wronged her enough already? You want me to send her to live alone? A young woman? My daughter? Your grand-daughter?’
Mehru thought it was high time she spoke. She didn’t want anyone’s pity.
‘I’m not alone. I have Bibi.’
Suddenly the room went quiet. It was only for an instant, but it was as if Time itself had stopped. Then her grandmother sneered, some of the younger people sniggered.
‘Mehru, please…’ her father whispered, looking embarrassed.
‘Is this what she was taught by that woman then? To interrupt her elders. She has no decorum. Uncouth,’ she said her face showing her distaste. Then she mocked her further, ‘But what else could I expect from one such as her? Bravo, Farooq Hassan Mirza. Bravo! What a gem of a daughter you have…’
This time their laughter was unhindered. Mehru looked her grandmother in the eye and said, ‘I did not interrupt. I only provided a solution to the problem when none seemed to be forthcoming from the elders.’
Her grandmother glared. The room went silent again. Then her grandmother’s steel ones vibrated in the room, ‘Do not presume to address me, young woman. You are the problem.’
‘Proud people breed sad sorrows for themselves,’ Mehru murmured the line from young Emily Bronte loud enough to be heard.
Her grandmother’s complexion changed. It darkened, her nostrils flared, and her lips compressed. Her ramrod straight back stiffened further. Looking regal like Britannia, her voice shaking with anger, she said, ‘Take this reminder of your folly and that woman’s treachery out of my sight, this instant.’
Her father looked lost for a moment and then his eyes met hers. He blinked several times as if clearing cobwebs from his eyes and then he took her hand and said, ‘Goodbye then Ami Begum. I’ll take my daughter with me and this time I will not come back.’
His wife let out a muffled cry and fell on the diwan. A young girl, perhaps sixteen, ran to her and hugged her. Must be the other daughter. Her father took her hand and marched towards the door, Bibi in tow.
They’d almost reached the door when her grandmother’s cold command whipped out at them from behind, ‘Stop, Farooq.’
Glossary of terms:
Diwan: chaise longue. A carved wooden seat designed for easy repose
Zennanah: lady’s quarters
Shararah: a skirt divided in two, wide legged trouser shape but pleated at the knees to give flare and design. A traditional dress on Muslim women of the sub-continent.
Dupatta: A long drape, shawl, of any material worn by Muslim women as veil, not necessarily across the face.
Paan Gali: Name of a street.
Begum: a word of respect used as prefix or suffix, meaning lady.
Durga: goddess of vengeance in Hindu mythology
Mehru’s first memories were of music, the sitar, the table and the harmonium; the smell of roses, or the overpowering fragrance of the gainda flower that Bibi insisted on having and always the odours of heat and spices.
She first became aware of something missing, something intangible in her life when she was six. A man came to visit her mother. He brought dolls for Mehru, but he was always in a hurry, and always apologetic. Her mother cried every time he came, and for three days, sometimes weeks after he was gone. Mehru disliked the man for making her mother feel sad but the dolls he brought were so very special. No one had even seen anything like them and all the girls she played with from her building were jealous. They had huge weddings for their dolls. Her doll was always the bride.
Mama was sad all the time but at times, she sang songs with her, they did arithmetic together, read about King Arthur and his Knights, of Mowgli and Riki-Tiki-Tavi and all their friends. Their stories were very fashionable. One evening, when they’d been riding in the carriage, a rare occurrence, her mother had pointed out the various buildings and the legends associated with them. She said she’d once met the man who wrote The Jungle Books. He used to live in Lahore too. In fact, Lispeth told her, that the man’s father, Mr. John Lockwood Kipling, had been the Principal of the Mayo Art College. The very college they’d just passed by.
Then they crossed the freemason club on the Mall Road, where Rudyard Kipling had been secretary to for three years.
‘I want to be a writer too,’ Mehru piped.
Her mother shook her head at Bibi.
Bibi was beautiful. Her raven hair, those large dark eyes always lined with kohl, her full lips stained with beetle-leaf juice, and the little diamond sparkling in her nose had made Mehru declare to her that she wanted to grow up to be just like her. Her mother was pretty too, but in a child-like, delicate way, with her blue-grey eyes and her light hair. Bibi was beautiful in an earthy way. She reminded Mehru of the Hindu goddesses, Radha and her parents worshipped.
Bibi had behaved very strangely at her announcement. First she’d laughed and then dissolved into tears and said, ‘No, no, my sweet Mehru, never like me. Be like your Mama.’
‘But she cries all the time. I don’t want to cry. I want to smile like you and laugh and do all the things you do. My hair is black like yours.’
Like your father’s, her mother would say with a sad little smile.
‘I have your eyes though,’ Mehru replied mournfully. Her grey eyes were just like her mother’s as was her fair skin. She did not look like a Hindu goddess at all.
‘Mama, why don’t you look like Bibi? Why’s your hair yellow?’
Her mother laughed and Bibi said, ‘Lispeth, this one’s going to be trouble.’
‘I’m right here, you know.’
That made them laugh again for some reason. It made no sense, because Mehru was quite serious. People talked about her like that all the time, as if she was invisible or deaf. And not just about her, they did that with all children. Grown-ups were strange. If they thought she’d forgotten her question they had another think coming.
‘How come you are so different from each other and yet we’re a family…’
‘We are not family, little dove. I…I’m just a…’
‘Of course you’re family, Bibi. Don’t you dare say otherwise,’ her mother interjected.
Bibi had tears in her eyes but she laughed.
‘Faruk Mian, employed me as your companion Lispeth. Your kindness to me is beyond anything that I’ve ever experienced, and I thank you, but you shouldn’t…you should remember my past. I was a courtesan nearly all my life and…’
‘Don’t tell me about should and shouldn’t, Bibi. And the past belongs to our past selves. Don’t drag it around with you Bibi, it’ll tire you out.’
‘What’s a courtesan?’ Mehru asked.
Her mother and Bibi exchanged a look and then Bibi said, ‘You want to hear another story about Raja Ranjeet Singh and his court?’
‘Yes!’ exclaimed Mehru. These were her favourite stories. She knew all about the different Rajahs, Badshahs, Malikas and Ranis of Hindustan. Chandragupta Maurya’s stories and how his throne had vanished into thin air after his death, with the sepulchral pronouncement that it would only return when a king as worthy as Chandra Gupta Maurya ruled Hindustan again.
Or so the story went.
‘Once upon a time, there was a Sikh warrior, his name was Ranjeet Singh and he raised an army so great…’
‘No, no, no, Bibi. First he was a child and he got small-pox, which ruined one of his eyes and he was one-eyed but that didn’t stop him from becoming a soldier like his father and then he raised an army to capture Lahore, at the age of nineteen.’
Bibi raised her perfectly shaped eye-brows and asked, ‘Would you like to tell the story, young lady?’
Chagrined, Mehru shook her head vehemently.
‘Alright then. So Ranjeet Singh….’
Mehru loved stories and she and her mother often went to the Kashmiri Bazaar near Delhi Gate, close to their home, to buy cheap books that the British families sold before they went back home for good. New families took their place at times and sometimes, the officers retired to remain in their chosen home.
The first time Mehru realized she was different was when Radha, the daughter of one of their neighbours in the building they lived in, yelled in a quarrel, ‘You little half-caste trash, reading your English books like the devil and with your coloured eyes, give me that doll or else!’
Of course that was just in anger and they were great friends but what she’d said remained with Mehru. Half-caste she’d heard before but she’d never been called a devil before. She went to her mother and asked what it was and why was reading, which was the only brightness in her life, a bad thing?
‘I told you Bibi but you didn’t listen. What would Faruk say if he found out his daughter was reading and writing in English? People are talking already.’
Bibi clucked her tongue.
‘Really Lispeth, look around you. It’s 1910! It’s a new age. You think all these girls from ‘good families’ will remain ignorant of modern education? No, they’ll be going to all these new schools that are cropping up all over the city. Faruk Mian is twenty years behind times.’
‘Ha! As if he’d ever let his daughter wear a skirt and blouse and go to an English school!’
‘Oh Lispeth! She’s not going to an English school is she? She should…but I agree, we cannot let our Mehru be exposed to all that ferengi environment. But I’ve seen some of the oldest families here adapt to the modern and to their benefit. Mehru is a gifted child and she will learn all she can. We don’t have to tell anyone. Faruk Mian comes only for a little while after months. He doesn’t need to know.’
Mehru’s education were as eclectic as her teachers. Bibi, amongst them.
‘A woman must always be mysterious. Don’t stare into the eyes of a man ever. Your eyes are the windows to your heart and a man must never own the knowledge of your heart, Mehru—the heart yes, but not its secrets.’
Bibi was always saying things which made Mehru feel that being a woman was the worst thing ever. There were so many rules to follow. She couldn’t remember half of them. Like the time she’d started teaching the son of the sweeper. The little boy came with his mother and looked hungry and scared so she’d fed him and started teaching him the alphabet. Bibi had been angry. The boy’s mother, the sweeper had cried and wailed; why, Mehru wasn’t sure, because she switched from crying about how a sweeper’s son could never be more than a sweeper in this unjust world to raving about the devil’s language that Mehru had exposed her son to.
‘You should never interfere, Mehru.’
Then there was that time when she’d climbed a tree. She’d only been eleven but her mother had almost fainted with fear that her father might have visited. When had she realized that the sombre man who visited once in a blue moon, was her father? She didn’t remember.
The time she had confronted a kotwaal, the policeman who did the rounds of their area in a discussion about how he treated the prostitutes, was the worst. She’d seen him take money from one. The girl had been only a little older than Mehru. Her eyes had flashed, her lips compressed but she’d handed him the few coins tied to the end of her sari pallu in a knot.
‘Kotwaal jee, why do you take money from her? Doesn’t the angraiz Sarkar pay you enough?’
The policeman and stared at her. Bibi had pulled her back, apologized to the man and dragged her home. She hadn’t been allowed outside for two weeks.
‘Women of good breeding do not speak to a man they are not related to or haven’t been introduced to by their father or brother! Mehru, Mehru…what are we going to do with you?’
Bibi had intoned almost in tears.
She was still asking the same question ten years later.
‘Mehru, just because your grandmother has let us stay, doesn’t mean that we have a place here. You have to win her heart. Why won’t you see sense, child?’
Mehru looked at Bibi and sighed.
‘Bibi, I cannot win my grandmother’s heart.’
‘Of course you can. Is this what I have taught you? You’re going to give up without even trying? She’s given us the opportunity and you’re going to just…’
Mehru stared into her eyes and interrupted, ‘Bibi…I cannot win her heart because she doesn’t have one.’
Glossary of terms:
Gainda: yellow orange flowers
Mian: Used as Mister
Sari pallu: traditional Indo-Pakistan dress of sari. The pallu is draped over the shoulder.
Angraiz Sarkar: British government
Mehru settled in well. A month went by and she began to understand the machinations of the household much better. For one, it became obvious to her that she’d be going nowhere anytime soon. Bibi went into near epileptic seizures, every time she mentioned going back. Secondly, she was fascinated by her grandmother.
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties—and yet…
Ah, dear Hamlet, what did you know of Indian grandmothers?
Mehru used this time to write. She began writing about her mother and her story. Coming to this place had made a huge impression on her. She felt closer to her when she wrote, as if she were keeping her alive through her writing.
In the evenings, the family gathered and sat together in the verandah, where there was a takht, sandalwood inlaid with silver and copper, where Ami Begum sat. On one side was the mandatory silver beetle-leaf box, all carved and with one ruby in the middle of the lid. All the females of the house sat around the takht where Ami Begum sat from morning prayers at 4:30 a.m. to noon. Then she came inside because it was too hot to sit in the verandah. Then they all had lunch, rested for a couple of hours in their own rooms. The children were supposed to sit in the study and do their lessons with the Qaria Apa. At five, all the women, newly freshened, perfumed and combed gathered again in the veranda for tea. That was when the real fun began. Peddler women selling bangles, or jewelry or cloth, would turn up with all the gossip of other families. They were women who had done this for years. It was like they had a free pass to all households of repute.
They sat on the cool red floor of the verandah, but behaved with great poise. When offered tea, they never said yes, just looked away in silence. Apparently that meant yes.
‘No one asks a guest if they want tea, Roohi,’ Ami Begum chided one young woman of the family. ‘You bring tea, with biscuits. Tell Gulaab Begum to make pakoras as well. I feel like having something fried.’
When the tea arrived, Ami Begum didn’t touch the pakoras, and the peddler women, two of them chatted, now relaxed and consumed the huge tray of spicy pakoras.
Mehru hadn’t seen women in the family go anywhere, even though there were three palanquins for their use. Mehru knew, ladies of good families didn’t just go with any carrier. They had to be trusted old servants, who enjoyed a strange status in the household. They could get away with a lot. They were consulted even, in little matters. The respect they had was implicit. One time, Gulaab Begum, the hijra who was their cook, had actually made a face at Ami Begum when she told him to cook, chicken biryani, and retorted,
‘Hai, Ami Begum, the Maliks, the Tiwanas, the Noons and the Chaudhrys eat lamb and mutton, and the Hayat household is stuck with second-rate chicken? Hai, hai, what is this world coming to?’
Ami Begum, that woman of iron and steel had actually laughed and said fondly, ‘Alright Gulaab Begum, cook what you want. Cook five kilos of lamb curry if it pleases you.’
Then Gulaab Begum had given her signature coquettish smile and walked away, with a wink at Mehru. She’d almost giggled. She was glad that Bibi and Gulaab Begum had hit it off instantly.
Mehru and Bibi always sat at the periphery of these gatherings. No one talked to them or acknowledged them but no one ever excluded them from the general happenings.
Sometimes the men joined them for the afternoon tea. It was a great occasion. Ami begum would have prior notice and tea would be special that day. There would be three kinds of savoury treats and two kinds of sweets that day, along with biscuits and fried nuts-and-lentils-mix made at home. Everything was homemade. Gulaab Begum would likely kill herself if anyone suggested use of the new-fangled bakeries at Charing Cross that the British had encouraged and patronized. So they’d have mince samosas, pakoras and dahi barhas, jalebis and gulaab jamun, or some times, ras gullahs.
The tea serving would be more formal that day. The rose-patterned china tea-set would be replaced by silver teapot, milk-pot and sugar pot with matching silver cutlery. The cups would be the robin-blue bone china one imported all the way from England. There were only two of these in all of Lahore, she’d been told proudly by Gulaab Begum. That was another thing. The pride the servants took in ‘their’ family was almost comical, but mostly endearing.
That day, the family men were joining them.
By the time Mehru arrived, there was already a discussion underway. She noticed her father, his head bowed. With him sat a young man she hadn’t seen before. He wore the traditional white embroidered kurta and plain white shalwar. His dark hair was tamed into submission and not a single hair was out of place. His face bore the mark of authority, even though he was no more than twenty six, she guessed.
Mehru didn’t quite catch everything, but she got the gist. The discussion was about her. People were divided. Her corner only had Ajoo Chacha and his family and Shahbaz Chacha.
‘Jamal, you haven’t given your opinion? Farooq Chacha has come with a complaint. He thinks I have not accepted his daughter with all my heart. ’
Ami Begum addressed the young man. So he was the adopted son of her Ajoo Chacha. The younger brother of his wife actually. Their parents had died, when Jamal was only five, and so Mallo Chachi had looked after him. It was only natural that he was considered their son.
‘She lives here. Sits with us, eats with us. Yet, I stand accused.’
Oh wow, Machiavelli, Mehru thought with grudging admiration. It is better to be feared than loved. Her grandmother was from Nicolo’s school of thought it seemed. Jamal’s velvety brown, bedroom eyes lifted, alighted on Mehru for a brief second, and her heart did an unfamiliar flip. She ignored it. She was still getting used to this new environment, she consoled herself. Nothing to do with the man.
He said, ‘Ami Begum, how can I possibly offer one in such a matter? What you decide to do with your son’s daughter…your grand-daughter is entirely up to you.’
Her grandmother looked pleased. Then he added, ‘And I have never known you to shirk your duty or responsibility. If you think that your grand-daughter is receiving the care she deserves in her father’s home, who is to say different?’
Absolute silence greeted his words. Mehru waited for the matriarch to sort him out with a tongue lashing.
‘You’ve made your point well, Jamal. But I don’t expect anything less from a promising barrister even ferenghis admire.’
‘Thank you Ami Begum. I owe it all to you. Your graciousness is legendary. I’m a living example of it. Your kindness to me…’
‘Oh stop, my dear boy. I don’t want you to compare yourself to this case. This is entirely different. Entirely.’
Ami Begum’s gaze shifted to Mehru. Cold. Dismissive.
Then she said, ‘Let’s have tea in peace. Roohi, serve tea, my dear girl. Help your mother.’
Long-limbed, light-eyed females were not a novelty to Jamal thanks to his years at Lincoln’s Inn. Yet he found his gaze wandering towards this beautiful stranger ever so often. The golden skin and the grey eyes, the dark, silky waist-length hair, and that quiet watchfulness; it was such an intriguing combination. He shouldn’t think like this. He was almost engaged to Sania. The thought never failed to depress him a little but she was the official candidate handpicked by Ami Begum who gave her trust and love to no one, and had somehow given them both to him one day when he’d barely been eight.
He’d accidentally broken a Waterford crystal vase, not even knowing its value at the time. And he’d gone straight to her and taken responsibility, offering to take the punishment she thought fit. He still remembered the steady long look she’d given him, designed to terrify. When he hadn’t even flinched, she’d pronounced the punishment—he was to read to her for an hour every day. How that strange and mutual affection developed between them, he’d never really understood. She’d been lonely he realized now, a widow with grown up children had plenty of time on her hands. She was tough as nails though, principled and a bit of a bully.
For a long time he hadn’t even understood the great honor she’d bestowed upon him when she’d adopted him. But then gradually, in small things, the import and the constraints began to reveal themselves to him. She expected total loyalty. He gave it, not out of fear but gratitude and that inherent moral law he was blessed—or cursed with. She’d given him everything that he could possibly dream of. Going abroad to study was a rare opportunity. She hadn’t batted an eyelid and had supported him financially throughout. She’d refused to let him reimburse the expenses. She wanted, and had, his complete loyalty. She’d made it clear very early that she wanted him for her grand-daughter.
But it’s the wrong grand-daughter.
He ignored the whisper. Every time she raised those sad grey eyes, they were focused on Ami Begum. Her face was a mask of studied indifference. She gave away nothing. Even her eyes were so full of that steady sadness nothing else lurked there, not even for an instant. Here she was, in a strange place with a cohort of newly found relatives, and she seemed calm and poised, as if this was how she’d spent all her evenings. She wasn’t easily rattled it seemed.
Look away, nothing good can possibly come out of this.
But for the first time in his life, Jamal ignored the voice he’d long identified with his conscience.
Glossary of Terms:
Takht: a wooden seat large enough to accommodate four to five people.
Qarai Apa: A gentlewoman like a governess employed by a household to teach the children the Holy Quran. Usually these ladies were relatives with no income or no one to depend on.
Hijra: eunuchs. Hermaphrodites were given special considerations even in the time of the Mughals. However, in the British Raj, hermaphrodites were persecuted and often killed. The British had homophobia and Hijras were reviled and lost the social protection they had hitherto enjoyed. Old households always had Hijras amongst their servants.
Pakoras: a fried accompaniment to tea. Made with gram flour, it has vegetables and spices and is a common food.
Samosas: another common accompaniment to tea made with white flour wraps and fried.
Jalebis: fried sweets
Gulaab jamun: another sweet
Dahi barhas: made with gram flour dumplings and yogurt, tamarind sauce and spices.
Chacha: paternal uncle
Chachi: wife of paternal uncle
Shalwar: loose traditional trouser
Bibi was combing out Mehru’s long tresses before bed-time, a habit Lispeth had inculcated as her English mother had with her. Bibi smiled as she recalled her only friend. Mehru was so much like her in so many ways, but mostly she was her own woman.
‘What did you think of the tea today?’ asked Bibi.
‘It’s too strong for my taste. Mama liked it lighter as you know.’
Bibi smacked the top of Mehru’s head lightly, and said, ‘Not the drink, you silly goose, the event.’
Bibi smiled. Mehru at a loss for words? That had to be a first. So the looks she had noticed between her and Jamal were not her imagination after all.
‘It was nice,’ Mehru said trying to sound non-chalant.
Hmm. Nice? They’d all been discussing Mehru right in front of her and she thought it was nice? Bibi’s smile broadened. The girl was not thinking straight. Bibi wanted to put the comb down there and then, and offer prayers of thanks to Allah Almighty. Mehru was nearly twenty three, an old maid by most standards and if Jamal were to offer for her hand it would be so wonderful. It would be her dream come true. She would die a happy woman.
But how was she going to make that happen with Ami Begum determined to keep them at an arm’s length.
‘Mehru, your grand-mother can be persuaded you know?’
It sounded like a warning and she heeded it. For now.
There was a knock on the door and Bibi went to see. As soon as she opened a sliver of the wooden double door, Gulaab Begum slipped through, a silver tray in her hand covered with a white lace cloth. She put the tray on the table and sitting down on the small patch of carpet, pouted at Mehru.
‘Bibi, is this halwa so bad that this mem sahib can’t even eat a spoonful? Hmm?’
Mehru smiled and opened her mouth to explain.
‘Save it, maharani! I will not hear a word you have to say till you eat at least half of my special halwa. I’ve added extra pistachios, and kishmish for only you.’
Mehru laughed and said, ‘Oh aren’t you sweeter than the halwa you prepare Gulaab Begum.’
That made her smile and she said with mock anger, ‘Huh! Eat first, sweet-talk later.’
Mehru laughed and happily accepted her favourite halwa.
‘Look at her eat now, and there on the table she wouldn’t touch it. So your grandmother’s bitter words are more attractive than my halwa, made with so much love, hain?’
So she’d noticed. Mehru looked up into Gulaab Begum’s face and sighed.
‘I never thought I’d find anyone else to love, Gulaab Begum. I thought Bibi and I would be…’
‘Hai! Hai! No one to love? And you are happy with an old woman and a hijra to love?’
‘Hey, who’re you calling old?’ Bibi thundered.
Gulaab Begum snickered.
‘O-ho, okay, so it’s an old mare with a red harness, eh?’
Bibi glared and Mehru chocked on her spoonful of halwa.
‘O-ho! Look what you’ve done, give her water.’
Bibi thumped her on the back and Gulaab Begum jumped to her aid with a glass of water from the red-clay ceramic matka always on the small table in the corner. It was emptied and filled with fresh water daily for her by one of the maids. The cold water coursed down her throat and Mehru cleared her throat.
‘I’m okay now, thank you.’
Bibi and Gulaab Begum had forgotten their spat and were now mumbling their thanks to Allah.
‘Thank you Gulaab Begum, it was delicious.’
Gulaab Begum preened and smiled and said in a gentle voice, ‘She’s a God fearing woman, your grand-mother but…women like her are bound by their traditions more than anything else. They feel they are the guardians of the Great Tradition of the family. She sees herself as the gate-keeper to her family’s honour and pride. It is both her strength and her weakness.’
Mehru looked away. Her grandmother was nothing more than an adversary in her eyes. A villain who had destroyed her parents’ marriage, and her mother’s life. Even now her mother was nebve mentioned. In fact she never even spoke Mehru’s name because to her she was her mother’s daughter alone.
Mehru straightened her shoulders.
‘I am my mother’s daughter Gulaab Begum. I don’t care what she thinks.’
‘Your mother cared what she thought. You’re your grand-mother all over again, pet.’
Gulaabo and Bibi exchanged a look. Mehru stared at them open-mouthed and said again, more insistently.
‘I am not like that woman at all. I am not!’
‘Oh, alright. You’re not. You never get your own way. Your pride is minimal, and you’re known for forgiving people.’
Mehru opened and closed her mouth twice but no words came out. Gulaab Begum sniggered. Narrowing her eyes Mehru said through clenched teeth, ‘I. Am. Not. Like. Her.’
This time Gulaab Begum went into a fit of giggles, concealing her face in her dupatta, so that only her orange hair, dyed with henna, was visible. Mehru raised a perfectly arched eye-brow at Bibi, who did nothing to hide her smirk.
‘Oh, go away both of you.’
Still giggling Gulaab Begum collected the tray and went out. Bibi walked outside with her whispering and laughing in her tinkling musical. Mehru was jealous of that feminine laugh. Hers was like a child’s, full throated and free. Bibi’s laugh was what a woman’s laughter should sound like.
‘Your heart, your eyes, and the corners of your mouth should enjoy and feel the laughter, never your throat and cheeks,’ Bibi would beseech her.
To no avail, of course. Mehru’s mouth opened, her cheeks stretched and her throat let out a deep gurgling sound that was as unfeminine as ever.
To her consternation, all her other cousins laughed softly and shyly. Even Sania, who was betrothed to Jamal. That was why she hadn’t come to tea that day, when Jamal was there. Betrothed couples were not supposed to see each other before their marriage vows were taken. Irritated for some unfathomable reason, she called out to Bibi. She could still hear them whispering and giggling outside her room.
Bibi slept in the same room as her. It was a baithak, a room separated from the rest of the house by a small terrace that led to a few steps with led to a raised terrace and then the main house. It was at the back of the house and Mehru felt they had the terrace and garden to themselves after dinner, when no one ventured out. This was the part of the house where unattached females had their rooms. Married couples had rooms nearer the part of the house where unattached males had their rooms. So that the rooms, and this was a big house with at least twenty bedrooms, were divided in three sections. The ones in the west veranda were considered bachelor quarters, where all the boy cousins lived. The veranda, led to the library, which opened into the main living room to give the boys access to the main house. The drawing room was also part of that section of the house. The boys, it was deemed had more use for the library than anyone else.
The sitting room was the central room of the house, through which opened the dining room adjacent to which was the grand-mother’s room and all the married couples’ rooms. These were divided from the rest of the rooms with a long dimly lit corridor which led to the girls’ rooms. There was a veranda at the back and the front of the house.
Sometimes the younger girls, from the ages of seven to fourteen came to talk to her. The older ones ignored her, too afraid of Ami Begum’s wrath. But the younger ones felt they were invisible and so could get away with it. And to Mehru’s delight they did. So at times, when there was a storm, or it was a particularly still, humid night they sneaked in to her baithak and they all sat or lay down on the vast spread of soft-low mattresses and white sheets, lightly sprinkled with water to make it cool. The area around was also sprinkled with water so that the hot parched earth gave out that delicious wet smell, Mehru loved. Then she would tell them stories, and they would tell her about the family and they laughed and chatted until they fell asleep one by one with exhaustion. Bibi woke them up all before dawn and took them back to their rooms so that no one knew of their nocturnal rebellion.
Mehru smiled at the recollection of those few times. She could hardly imagine two months had gone by. It seemed to her she’d always lived there and it was thanks to her young cousins and their secret friendship.
Still irritated, Mehru walked out to the terrace. She looked up at the dark sky. The garden around her was encircled by tall trees spreading their foliage out like dark clouds. She looked away towards the moon, bright and splendid, hanging in the darkness like a promise.
A movement at the corner of her eye caught her attention. She whirled around and a shadow detached from the darkness and moved towards her…
Glossary of words:
Halwa: sweet porridge made of semonila
Mem sahib: originally used for British women and then used for someone with an attitude
Hai: an expression of pain or horror
Matka: a clay pot
Baithak: a suite of rooms, usually a bedroom and sitting room separate from the rest of the house.
Mehru would’ve screamed but she was too scared to do even that. The shadow that had detached itself from the rest of the darkness became solid and in the next instant, she saw that it was her father.
‘Mehru, my dear…’
She didn’t move.
How long she’d hoped to hear these words, to see that expression of love but it was too little too late. Yet, he still looked uncomfortable. Mehru wanted to laugh so she wouldn’t cry, but she did neither.
‘I know I haven’t come to see you before. I should have but…’
‘It’s alright. You don’t have to. In fact, I don’t even have to stay here. Bibi won’t let me leave, however.’
He looked even more uncomfortable.
‘This is your home. This is where you belong. Why should you want to leave?’
Mehru cocked her head to the side just a bit and said, ‘No. This isn’t my home. Nor do I belong here. My mother didn’t, so I don’t either. I haven’t forgotten, nor will I ever. So maybe you should give up with the pretence.’
His face dropped.
‘Mehru, this isn’t pretence. I’m sorry for what happened with Lispeth. I loved your mother.’
‘Then I hope to God, no man ever loves me.’
‘Mehru!’ he growled in warning. ‘Just because I understand I’ve wronged you does not mean you can forget your place or mine. I’m your father.’
Her calmness had the desired effect and he pleaded again, ‘Mehru, my dear, won’t you give your father another chance?’
She looked back at him and said in a steady voice, ‘I will.’ He smiled with relief and gratitude and took a step forward.
Mehru added in the same calm voice, ‘The day you’re able to give my mother a second chance at a happy life, my dear father, I’ll give you a chance too.’
He stopped in his tracks and she turned around to leave.
‘Mehru. You might not be able to forgive me, but I know you love me. I know that and I will wait for you to get over your anger. I brought you this, for Eid. Tomorrow’s Eid…and I just…’
Mehru didn’t stop nor did she look back because already her eyes were stinging with her unshed tears.
Bibi was there to comfort her, to hug her and soothe her aching heart, but like always she was also full of advice Mehru had no desire to take.
‘You must not blame him so much, little dove. What was he to do? In those days, young men were not as defiant as they are now, with their new-fangled English education. Your father was a man of his times, and he had to do what his mother decreed. He didn’t have a choice…’
Bibi went on and on, but Mehru’s thoughts entangled and got stuck at the mention of her grandmother. She was the spider who had spun this web that even now had them all captured like flies. Mehru felt the stickiness of those thin strands that she couldn’t disentangle from, or her life, her thoughts, in fact, her very being was pinned down by events that had happened long before she was even born. Bibi was right, it wasn’t just her father, it was his mother who must pay for what they’d done to Lispeth, for what they were doing to Mehru.
Eid-ul-Azha was a grand affair.
With such a large household, there were fifteen goats to be sacrificed. Everyone was dressed up. Mehru had never seen her family so relaxed. Men and boys were sitting around in the main sitting room as if they belonged there. Though all the girls had their heads covered, they were sitting there with them, sometimes even talking with the unmarried boys. Mehru exchanged looks with Bibi and tried not to laugh at the girls, who were hard-pressed to contain their excitement.
Apparently twice a year the rules were relaxed. Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Azha were the two festivals, which, being religious, were sanctioned safe and holy enough for the boys and girls to at least see each other, at times even talk. Mehru’s secret posse of female admirers sat around her giggling along with her, while Bibi glared and shook her head at them, which made them laugh all the more. There was a wooden chess table on one side of the room, polished and stained to perfection, and the large solid wood chess pieces were fabulous specimen of extraordinary craftsmanship. When Mehru saw one of the little girls playing with the knight, she told them about her love of chess and how she used to play with Bibi.
Her grandmother overheard and said, ‘So you think you can play chess? Let’s see you keep your claim, Mehrunissa.’
There was absolute silence in the room. Mehru looked up. Her grandmother looked austere and slightly mocking.
‘I made no claims. I just told you the truth. I can play but I haven’t played in a while…’
Her grandmother laughed.
‘What, giving up already?’
Mehru felt her back turn to steel and she said softly, ‘Not without a fight.’
Ajoo Chacha laughed and said, ‘Takes after me, I see.’
Ajoo Chacha and his wife, Mallo Chachi, were Mehru’s favourite people. She was most comfortable with them.
‘Mallo, you play chess, don’t you? Let’s see you tackle your niece then.’
Your niece. Your daughter.
So be it. Mehru didn’t really care.
Her uncles laughed and Mallo Chachi stepped up. Mehru checkmated her in three moves. Ajoo Chacha offered to play next, saying he had to save the family honour. That made everyone laugh. Mehru was a bit reluctant to finish him off too soon. The game went on for about five minutes and she’d done no real damage to him.
‘Mehru, are you being kind or am I that good?’
Mehru laughed but saw her grandmother sneering. That was enough. She stopped playing nice.
‘How did you do that?’ Ajoo Chacha gasped, when he was checkmated two minutes later.
‘I’m sorry Ajoo Chacha…’
Laughing, he replied, ‘Don’t worry, Mehru. Well done. You should play someone who’s really good. We’re no match for you. Shahbaz Chacha?’
Her other uncle declined gallantly. ‘Not me. I won’t be walloped by my own niece.’
Clearing her throat loudly, her grandmother said, ‘Jamal, you play chess rather well, I remember?’
Her grandmother threw the gauntlet and her champion into the arena. Jamal’s bedroom eyes were on Mehru. He smiled and said, ‘I think I do, Ami Begum. But there’s only one way to find out.’
Mehru rearranged the pieces and raised her finely arched eyebrow at her adversary. Jamal gave another half-smile, as if he was afraid to smile too much with her, she thought, and took the chair his sister had vacated.
All eyes were on them. She made the first two or three moves automatically. Her grandmother looked alert and apprehensive. Good, thought Mehru and her eyes returned to the board and…she was startled. This man wasn’t as much of an amateur as she’d thought. She took stock quickly and made her move, hedging his knight. Immediately, he took her castle with his bishop.
His eyes glittered with challenge. Mehru gave him an appraising look. So he thought he was clever, did he? Concentrating on the game, she proceeded to snag his castle and his bishop in the next three moves.
He smiled appreciatively but didn’t relent or look crestfallen. Soon she’d forgotten everyone else as the game grew more serious. If he won, which was impossible because she was really good and had an IQ he had no hopes of matching, but in the off-chance that he did, she’d be humiliated before her grandmother and she just couldn’t allow that to happen.
Jamal watched her unashamedly. No one could find fault if a man stared at his opponent…and had anyone had a more beautiful adversary ever? Her golden cheeks were slightly flushed now, her plump lower lip caught in a wickedly inciting vice with her pearly white teeth, as she concentrated on the game. He watched her, riveted, completely and utterly beyond the point of return. Was he in love, he wondered vaguely. He knew the many shades her grey eyes flashed when she was angry or happy and how they stilled into darker pools when she was sad. How her full-lipped mouth drooped slightly at the corners when she felt out of place. His mind switched off as she smiled at him. The beautiful grey eyes no longer sad but alert.
He looked down at the board. She’d cornered his queen and his last remaining bishop.
‘Who asks whether your foe was defeated by strategy or valour?’ She said, trying not smile, and he couldn’t help smiling back. She looked so happy at having bested him…almost.
‘Voltaire.’ She clarified with a bigger smile.
He chose to save his queen. She took his bishop, cornering his castle and knight.
A round of applause went up and she laughed a little. There was a certain degree of satisfaction returning to those grey eyes. His next move was deceptively docile, which cost him his castle. She fell for it. He took her queen with his knight.
Her grandmother chuckled.
Jamal smiled as Mehru’s eyes flickered. Watching the board like a hawk, she played a move that was too simple…almost suicidal. What was she doing? She’d put her knight in jeopardy for no apparent reason. He could easily get her and it’d be all over for her in a few more moves. He looked up at her, to watch for any sign of foul play. He didn’t see anything except that glow on her golden skin, her dark eyelashes fanning over her cheeks. Maybe her grandmother’s obvious glee had made her lose her concentration? It was too good a chance to miss and he went after her knight.
‘The knight is my favourite chess piece. The romance attached to the knight perhaps. But it’s so crucial to remember all the pieces.’
She’d lost the knight, and ignoring the bishop that was still too precariously positioned she moved her castle to cage his king between it, and the bishop.
God, he was a fool. She’d baited him. Child’s play. He felt humiliated; not because he’d lost but because of the way he lost. And she wasn’t even looking at him as she enjoyed her victory. She was looking at her grandmother.
He’d been a pawn between two queens.
Check and mate.
Glossary of terms:
Eid-ul-Fitr: Religious Muslim festival after Ramadan, the month of fasting.
Eid-ul-Azha: Religious Muslim Festival after the obligatory performance of Hajj in Makkah, where an animal is sacrificed for Allah, in remembrance of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Ismail for God. Ismail was saved, and a sheep was placed there in his stead.
Chacha: Paternal Uncle
Chachi: Paternal Aunt
That night, after dinner, everyone was sitting in the sitting room. The younger group sat at the periphery of the older generation who sat around Ami Begum, drinking green tea. The fragrance of cardamom and cinnamon wafted on the air. The relaxed code would end when the evening ended so everyone was making the best of it, and Fahad Shahbaz Chacha’s son followed Mehru to the single chair she favoured, from where she could watch her family. He sat at her feet telling her stories and looking up at her in adoration. He was chatting about nothing and everything, and she was listening to him with half an ear. He was a sweet boy and she liked him. He made her laugh.
‘Fahad. Come with me,’ her grandmother’s voice was autocratic. She’d been in a huff ever since Mehru had beaten Jamal at chess. There was a sudden break in conversation. With difficulty she got up and went to her room across the living area, leaving the door open. Fahad followed her.
In a clear voice that was designed to carry, she said, ‘This girl does not know our ways but you do. Such women are used to playing with the affections of susceptible males. Be careful. Avoid her. I’m still not certain she’s even her father’s blood.’
For a few moments everything went very still inside Mehru. Had she heard her right?
‘Ami Begum, please…’
Fahad’s horrified tones dimmed as he quickly closed the door.
Mehru saw Sania and her mother smirking. Mallo Chachi and Ajoo Chacha were looking at each other with troubled expressions. She knew her grandmother had meant for everyone to hear that. She’d wanted to make them think that she, Mehru, was after Fahad, like some street woman. Her grandmother had thought this of her since the very first day and now she was trying to take away the few people who genuinely cared for her.
Something that Mehru had thought was dried up and dead already, died at that moment again. Her resolve hardened and her abstract notion of revenge took shape and form. She knew exactly what she was going to do to break this tyrant who’d broken her family, had punished her mother-punished her still, even in death.
Two things had become clear to Mehru in the last few weeks she’d been here. The first was that her grandmother’s silent war on her was no secret. She said things that were calculated to humiliate her and her mother far too often and the best response people had was to ignore the jibes. No one ever mentioned her mother. She had ceased to exist, even in memory.
The second thing, Mehru realized, was that the only weakness the old woman had was Jamal. Her grandmother took great pride in him and his success. It was obvious also that Jamal barely tolerated Sania, his betrothed. So the only reason that he was going along with the engagement was to please Ami Begum, who, seemed secure in the absolute knowledge that no one was going to defy her, especially not Jamal.
Mehru couldn’t help smiling a little, as she thought that the most dangerous of all human flaws, was to put one’s trust in another. And wasn’t that just the most painful of blows, the betrayal of trust? What could be worse than to be let down by a son. Or surrogate son? And if history were to repeat itself, what then, grandmother?
She recalled all the lessons that Bibi had thought necessary to impart to her.
A man cannot resist a damsel in distress. A woman’s tears, after her beauty are her most potent weapon. She’d always laughed at such archaic notions and thought that any man who was this malleable would be too uninteresting for any trouble on her part but now…now she needed to play a part because a perfect plan had presented itself to her. She was going to avenge her mother. She knew exactly how to do it too.
Mehru dropped her eyes, and when next she raised them, they were full of hurt and pain, and she didn’t raise them randomly—she raised them to Jamal. Just for an instant…that would be enough. Jamal was the kind of man who liked to slay dragons and rescue princesses. He probably told himself the opposite but he was a poet at heart and a lawyer by necessity. She wasn’t going to pursue him. She was going to let him do that. Men were intrigued by mystery, unspoken promises and allure. She just had to overcome her sense of guilt at having to use him.
Jamal found himself drowning in the depths of the pain reflected in those stormy grey eyes. Quickly, she’d averted them, as if she didn’t want anyone to see her heartache. But to his detriment, Jamal already had and he wasn’t likely to forget the tortured beauty of this lonely, brave girl. Ami Begum had been needlessly cruel and vicious. Unknowingly, Mehru had just broken the last of the barriers he had erected against her and the feelings she evoked in him. He couldn’t fight it any more, even though he knew he must.
He wasn’t some unschooled boy but a man who’d seen the world and had fought dirty to make a name for himself. He was a hard man, and though, not cynical he wasn’t a romantic either. Love and all, it was stuff of tales and movies. Why then, did he feel that his heart was no longer where it should be?
Jamal got up abruptly, and left the room.
Mehru smiled to herself as she watched him go. The plan she’d thought of was brilliant and she would hit her grandmother where it hurt most. It was ironically Machiavellian in its justice too. It was a shame that Jamal would be dragged into the middle of all this but she’d be doing him a favour, really. He couldn’t get himself out of the mess of Sania but this way they would both win. Jamal was a sensible man, and when the time came, he would understand completely. He’d probably thank her by the end.
She got up and followed him outside. She caught up with him outside in the veranda.
He heard Mehru’s musical voice and stopped in his tracks. There was a lilt in her intonation. He waited, frozen in his position, with one leg down on the lower step and the other on the sweeping landing of the stone steps outside the house, looking over his shoulder. He was watching her with an insatiable hunger that was becoming a part of him. It was as familiar to him now as was his own name.
She was almost as tall as him and at six feet he was a tall man, so she was probably five eight at least, but she still looked fragile. Her bone structure was delicate.
‘I…I just wanted to say you played really well tonight.’
She seemed nervous. He smiled. ‘Not well enough obviously.’
She twisted her fingers in her hands, bit her lip and dropped her eyes. She was so very shy, especially with him, he’d noticed. He wanted to touch her. He wanted to take that plump bottom lip into his mouth…Shut up! His heart was beating faster and his blood was drumming in his ears. She was exquisite and she looked so very naïve. Untouched. Or so he wanted to believe, so very badly.
‘I hope no hard feelings?’
Smiling shyly, she extended her hand. He stared at her and then at her hand for the longest time. If someone saw them holding hands, there’d be hell to pay. But it was such a sweet gesture. His own hand seemed to be master of its own will and was already enveloping her delicate fingers in his large ones. Her fingers fluttered in his hand, and he squeezed them captive, just for a heartbeat, and then he let go.
And he felt desolate. As if he’d lost a prized possession.
‘Good night then.’
‘Good night, Mehru.’
She gave him a full blown smile, as if he’d said something really clever. And it made him feel like a veritable Hercules, and he felt ridiculous for feeling that. Turning on his heels walked away from her. Watch it, you idiot! You know nothing about her, and you’re practically engaged.
But not quite.
Don’t go there, Jamal chided himself, as he took big steps away from the main house. Away from Mehru. But even as he said it, he couldn’t help acknowledging that there was a part of him that yearned for someone to call his very own; someone who’d look at him as if there was no one else in the universe but him. Someone he could call his own, totally and completely. He didn’t even remember his parents and by the time he had a sense of self, his sister was married and he had become an accessory. His brother-in-law loved him like a father and his sister had loved him like a mother too. But still he was an accessory. That was a fact that couldn’t change.
He’d always lived by a code. That code of pride and ethics had helped him survive in a world that could, and was eager to tread on the fallen. Who would he be without that code of honour?
Ami Begum wanted to reward her daughter and her daughter’s daughter with a trophy for good behaviour. He’d been chosen as the trophy through no fault of his. Now Mehru made him feel things he’d never imagined he could feel. He’d never felt so male before, never been aware of his masculinity as he was now, as if all his primitive instincts were aroused and predominant.
He didn’t have a chance, he thought with a kind of Bacchic despair.
Glossary of terms
Chacha: paternal uncle
Chachi: wife of paternal uncle
‘Do you think, I didn’t notice where you went and who you talked with just now, without being properly chaperoned?’
Mehru’s chagrin at Bibi’s words was heartfelt because as soon as she came back to her room she’d felt waves of shame and anger engulf her. What had she been thinking going after Jamal like that?
Seeing the confusion on Mehru’s face, Bibi changed tack quickly.
‘I’m not angry. If anything I’m pleasantly surprised. I didn’t know you had it in you. A woman must always know her mind. Well done. Why shouldn’t you go after the man you like? But please little dove, tell me you behaved like a young woman? None of that women’s liberation agenda for me, thank you very much. Women already have all the power, if they only knew how to use it.’
Mehru glared at Bibi, who laughed and said, ‘He’s in love with you. Can’t you see that? Use your charms. That’s all.’
Mehru clucked her tongue.
‘No man is capable of love. We both know that. Secondly, I don’t have any charms. You tried for twenty two years to bring them out from the deep recesses you were sure existed within me, to no avail.’
‘He usually sits in the study when he has a case to prepare. He’s working on one these days.’
Mehru exchanged one long look with Bibi and then she nodded. That night, after everyone had gone to sleep, Mehru went to the study downstairs, a room at the far left of the house, where hardly anyone ever went. She’d just pretend she’d been looking for a book.
A table lamp illuminated an otherwise dark and empty room. The big chair faced the other way but there was no doubt there was no one there. Mehru let out a sigh of defeat and went inside any way. It had been a long shot, and now that she was there, she might as well get herself a book.
‘Looking for something?’
She nearly jumped out of her skin. Jamal stood in the doorway with a file in his hand.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.’
Mehru gave him a tremulous smile, ‘It’s okay…I was just looking for a book.’
‘I’ll come back later if you like…’
‘No, please don’t leave on my account. I can back later for the book.’
‘No, I insist. You stay and I’ll…’
‘We could both stay.’ She smiled. ‘I’m quite certain your reputation will be safe.’
His eyes shot up, full of humour and he said, ‘And you don’t care about yours?’
‘Oh mine’s already been compromised.’
His smile vanished, his voice hoarse he whispered, ‘What?’
‘I’m half-n-half as they used to call people like me and my mother. Half castes are nothing you know. My mother had a very difficult life. Half castes were considered dangerous anomalies. There was a law against us. Even now the discrimination exists. People like me, we have no rights, not reputation, noting to lose.’
There was silence in the room.
‘You’re not…you shouldn’t think that way. You’re your father’s daughter too and—‘
‘Don’t worry about me, Jamal. I know exactly where I stand with my family.’
Mehru gave him a friendly smile but secretly thought this goody-goody act was too much to be real. What made this man tick? Was he the upright citizen he pretended to be? Did he really think nothing of this?
‘We all have our little dark secrets. I’m sure there are skeletons in the closet, even in this family.’
His eyes shot to hers, keen and sharp, no longer the velvety bedroom eyes she’d seen before. These were the eyes of the lawyer, who reputedly cut people to shreds with his control and eloquence, in the courtroom. Now what exactly was he looking for, with that searching gaze?
But when he didn’t say anything she smiled and said, ‘You too…you must have some vices?’
He gave a short laugh and said, ‘Yes, I do have my vices. Though I’m too clever to display them.’
Aha! But she fell into the part Bibi had been unsuccessfully teaching her to play for years. Softly she said, ‘I seriously doubt that. I think you’re the proverbial good boy. You must always do the right thing–be the bigger man, code of chivalry, that sort of thing.’
‘You make it sound like it’s a bad thing…’
He looked a little confused and almost hurt.
Oh. He was so adorable. She had to be careful, and what with the looks and the bedroom eyes…
‘Not at all, I think these are the qualities that every man should have but sadly, one doesn’t see it often enough.’
‘No? There hasn’t been anyone in your life that you…admired?’
Mehru replied with genuine embarrassment, ‘Not really.’
He sounded almost relieved when he said, ‘You seem to have settled here well. It’s a very different life from what you’re used to. Do you think you could be happy here, on a permanent basis?’
She nodded with a small smile, not trusting her voice yet. So Bibi was right. She knew what he wanted to hear so she said, ‘I love it here. I’m just beginning to get to know my family, especially y…’
She stopped, looking for all the world, as if she’d said too much, and was startled at her blunder. She hoped that it would work. He wasn’t all that bright where women were concerned apparently. He was marrying that Sania, after all.
His voice sounded faintly husky. So far so good. She’d hooked him but how far should she go? She made a split second decision and said in a low strangled voice, designed to reflect panic and helplessness. ‘I…I really…shouldn’t have…it’s nothing. You’re engaged and…I’m not Sania.’
‘Thank God for that.’
Looking startled at the vehemence in his voice, she asked, ‘Why do you say that?’
In answer he gave her a languorous look that had her knees wobbling. Quickly she said, ‘I…I should go.’
His intense expression didn’t change and suddenly Mehru could hear her own pulse thudding. Somewhat panic-stricken, she said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea. If I’d known you were going to be here…’
‘You wouldn’t have come?’ he asked.
Mehru shook her head, looking at him mournfully.
Mehru hesitated. What to say? How much to say? Enigmatically, she answered ‘I wish I could say but some truths are better left unspoken.’
She looked up at him and smiled, for a moment forgetting her goal.
Jamal stood in the doorway, almost in silhouette and in that moment he seemed to emanate a primitive, barely controlled power and Mehru felt that there was another side to him, a glimpse of which he showed in the courtrooms. A fearless man…dangerous too—a man who had nothing to lose.
The moment passed, and he moved towards the table and into the light and said lightly, ‘Truth should be guarded, not falsified.’
‘That sounds like Thoreau,’ she said.
His smile reached all the way to his sparkling eyes, and he said, ‘No that was just me.’
Mehru laughed and inclined her head. Jamal said softly, ‘I come here sometimes to prepare for my cases. Don’t let me disturb you if you came to select a book.’
‘Thanks…yes, I’ll just take one.’
She grabbed one unmindful of anything except the remnants of her strange fear and foreboding that were still upon her. She gave him a small smile and reached the door when she thought he heard him say softly, ‘I haven’t put a ring on anyone’s finger yet, Mehru.’
She didn’t look back but she felt his eyes upon her still. The encounter had disturbed her. She didn’t want to feel that he was in any way a threat…because surely, he wasn’t? He was a harmless lamb; witness his reticence at his own slaughter at the proverbial altar with Sania. By morning Mehru had convinced herself that it was all her imagination and she’d just let it run away with her.
Having satisfied and laid to rest her wondrous imagination as far as Jamal was concerned, she went about her usual business. But the next few times, when the men gathered with the rest of the family for the weekly ritualistic tea, she caught her grandmother watch Jamal with an unusually falcon-like stare. Her grandmother didn’t look too happy with her golden boy. Mehru couldn’t be sure, but suspected that it may have something to do with the way Jamal’s eyes kept wandering towards her, and they held acute turmoil in their depths. It was disconcerting. Although that was exactly what she’d wanted, she couldn’t help feeling unrest and a sense of how wrong it was of her to be using Jamal for her own ends. She shrugged again mentally, it couldn’t be helped. Collateral damage and all that.
Mehru was sitting with her female relatives in the veranda. Ami Begum on her takht, delicately chewing paan, the rest of the ladies, some embroidering, some cutting silver mukaish strips for chiffon dupattas.
Her grandmother said, ‘I’ve been thinking. Jamal and Sania should get married in September this year instead of February next year.’
Mehru’s jaw tightened. Mallo Chachi said, ‘It’s up to you Ami Begum but we should maybe, discuss with Ajoo…’
‘Yes, of course we, will Mallo. But what do you think?’
‘It’s as you wish Ami Begum.’
‘Hmm. Good. Tell Ajoo and the others that after tea on Friday iI wish to discuss an important matter with all of them. After tea, I want all the children to go back to their rooms. Only the adults will stay back.’
‘Ami Begum,’ asked one of the aunts who was expecting, ‘if I may also be excused?’
‘Of course, Nighat. Don’t worry about it. I know I can count on your support. You should be resting.’
‘Than you Ami Begum,’ she said gratefully.
When Mehru and Bibi were back in their room, Bibi said, ‘I will try to stay back and hear what is decided. I think, your grandmother is worried. I think she is no longer sure of Jamal’s obedience.’
Mehru’s voice was cold.
‘I won’t let her win again, Bibi.’
Bibi, now concerned about her but also happy to push Mehru into pursuing Jamal, since she thought that was the only way her little dove could be safely ensconced in her home, said, ‘Slow and steady, Mehru.’
‘If you’re right. If she is unsure of Jamal…what should I do now?’
‘Wait for him to make the move now. He’s a traditionalist.’
Mehru nodded, ‘I think so too. So now we wait and see.’
Bibi heard Jamal’s voice as she brought in the new pot of tea.
He sounded weary when he said, ‘That’s too soon, Ami Begum.’
‘Nonsense! September is two months away and we’ll have plenty of time to prepare. What do you think Mallo? Nighat?’
The women responded but Bibi didn’t hear because she was watching Jamal. He looked irritated but also…resigned. He was studiously avoiding looking at any one. She wished sincerely that she hadn’t miscalculated and that Jamal had been susceptible to Mehru. But what if she was wrong? Her plan of safety for Mehru depended on him entirely.
Would he have the courage to defy his grandmother? She couldn’t let him be a pansy now. She’d put in too much effort and the sooner Mehru was settled, the better. The talk had shifted by then to the details. Jamal got up in agitation and said, ‘Please excuse me.’
The women laughed, thinking he was shy and he fled with a face of granite.
Bibi followed suit. She reported back to Mehru.
Mehru felt the anger and frustration rise. Her grandmother was going to best her again. She couldn’t allow that to happen.
‘Jamal looked very unhappy.’
‘How is that going to help us, until and unless he chooses to say something, Bibi? I’m telling you that woman—‘
Bibi ignored the impatient sound and said, ‘Prepare yourself for next week. Jamal must act soon or everything will be lost.’
Mehru nodded and Bibi came over and hugged her.
‘My little schemer.’ She kissed the top of her head and said, ‘You will win, you’ll see. I’m here with you and when have I ever failed you, huh?’
Mehru smiled and hugged Bibi back.
Mehru couldn’t wait for next Friday when they’d all gather for tea again. She wore her light blue lace traditional kurta and churidaar, to enhance her grey eyes and looked demure and pretty, making sure she never raised her eyes to anyone but Jamal.
As far as he was concerned, Jamal had eyes for no one but Mehru.
He watched her surreptitiously. She looked sad and unhappy at the news of his impending marriage, or was it just his wishful thinking? She seemed upset, as if her world were crumbling around her. That night in the study too, she’d nearly admitted to having feelings for him, hadn’t she? She’d stopped before she said anything that would be too bold. After all, she was a well-bred lady. She looked at him again, as if…in recrimination. His heart suddenly jumped and even as she dropped her eyes, Jamal knew he had to ask her. He had to tell her how he felt…and if he made a complete fool of himself, well, he’d just have to live with it wouldn’t he?
Even though she’d been expecting him to follow, Mehru’s heart gave a sudden lurch. Guilt was a bad combination to have with a thirst for revenge. She’d been watching him build his resolve throughout the evening. He was going to declare himself, as they said.
They were alone in the garden and the sun was almost setting. The blaze was mellow, orange and russet in the sky. She saw him approach in his signature white shalwar kurta. He looked troubled. For a moment he didn’t raise his eyes but when suddenly he did, meeting her gaze head-on, almost defiantly, she was almost sorry for the pain she was going to cause him later. He looked miserable already.
‘Mehru…I’m going to ask you something…the only reason I’m asking is because I don’t want to involve the elders unless there’s a reason for it. And if you say that there isn’t…well, then just chalk it up to my misunderstanding and we’ll both forget this ever happened.’
Mehru’s heart thundered, despite knowing, that it was all a sham.
‘What do you mean Jamal? I don’t…’
‘I…Mehru…do you think you could possibly…’
He stopped again as if he couldn’t find the right words. And he was supposed to be some magician in the courtroom. Mehru nearly smiled at his discomfort but she couldn’t help him out. He was a romantic and he had to fulfil his quest of claiming the princess himself. Yawn…but oh well, whatever.
‘The only reason this whole business with Sania…it’s because of Ami Begum. I have no attachment at all to her, or any other girl. But ever since…’
He looked at her without the trouble in his eyes and they were velvety again, and dreamy as he continued smiling, ‘ever since you came, I haven’t been myself. If there is the slightest chance that you might feel…even a little bit, like how I feel about you, I could…defy the world for you.’
He should have been a poet not a lawyer, she thought, even as she batted her eyes and looked away with a shy smile, hoping she wasn’t overdoing it.
‘You do? You…would? Oh…Jamal…’
She smiled, then let it falter and whispered miserably, ‘But Ami Begum…’
‘She’s my problem-but you didn’t answer my question?’
‘I can’t let her…she’ll hate you too because I’m an outsider…’
‘Nothing matters to me except for what you feel, Mehru…for me?’
He’d come closer but he didn’t touch her. That was his training as an honourable male. Mehru was sure there was plenty of that kind of stuff going on here as well as anywhere, but Jamal was of another breed of men. The upright and noble kind–that was why he was falling for her tricks, noble people expected everyone to be honourable.
‘Mehru…please tell me I’m not wrong in hoping that you feel the same way for me because if you don’t, I’ll never bother you again, I really…’
She spun around, her face showing misery and reluctant joy. ‘You know that I do…Jamal, how could I not? But it’s wrong of me! You’re engaged to Sania, my grandmother hates me…I can’t let you do this. It’s madness!’
‘Maybe it is…but I’d rather revel in this madness than be sane.’
Talk about romance and poetry! His eyes were full of fire now, joy, wonder and desire…‘So, you…’ he stared at her, his eyes perusing her face in the sultry dusk. His voice was still full of wonder, ‘You’ll marry me, Mehru?’
She hesitated for just an instant and then said, smiling, ‘Yes. If you’re sure that’s what you want?’
He gave a laugh that was full of joy.
‘God, yes! All my life I’ve been a model of propriety. I’ve never stepped out of line. I never believed in notions of falling in love, and not for an instant did I ever imagine that I was capable of the kinds of emotions you bring out on me…it’s all very new to me. I’ve paid my debts with Bi Jee…and if I haven’t, so be it. But I will not give you up, not now or ever…for anyone. I’ve never felt like this before…I feel disoriented.’
Mehru felt a little embarrassed for him. The poor dear! But she masked her discomfiture and said softly, ‘You should be sensible, Jamal. Are you sure you understand what you’re saying? You’ll be ostracized if you so much as hint at…this.’
He had to believe he was fighting for her, or he wouldn’t be effective. He came forward smiling, and taking both her hands in his, kissed their palms. Mehru hated herself then. Thought of telling him, confessing everything and apologizing. He was so nice. She shouldn’t do this to him.
‘Mehru you’ve awoken a part of my soul I never knew I had. I’m never going to let anything take you away from me.’ The smile he shared with her was full of promise and happiness. ‘I can’t wait to begin my new life with you, Mehru.’
His voice had become as velvety as those brown eyes. All this talk of souls and eternal love was making her dizzy.
Bibi descended upon them like the wrath of God and knocked all doubts out of Mehru’s head.
‘Young man I did not expect this from you! And you!’ She said pointing at Mehru, who tried not to laugh, ‘Did I raise you to be this wanton?’
Bibi’s voice was raised and she was crying, and sniffing and still sounded outraged. ‘You sir are out of line…’
Jamal tried to soothe her, ‘Bibi, please listen. I want to marry her. I’m asking Mehru to marry me…’
Bibi’s tears vanished, her sniffing ceased and her outrage increased. ‘And who does that, huh? Go talk to her father as is proper. Go!’
Jamal looked at Mehru, looking slightly pale. It was time to play the shy virgin again.
‘Jamal…I think I should go now…please, please don’t do anything foolish that will make your life difficult. I care for you too much to let you do that. If you decide to not do this I’ll understand…nothing can ever change the way I feel for you.’
With that coup de grace she ran up the steps, with Bibi following her like a hawk on hunt.
Jamal watched her receding back. She hadn’t said she loved him but he hadn’t expected her to either. In fact, he would have been surprised if she had. She’d obviously been brought up with a strict code.
There wasn’t anything in the world to stop him now. She loved him, he knew. He wasn’t being fanciful. Love, it seemed did exist. Jamal laughed again and his laughter was as full of wonder as his thoughts. He couldn’t remember ever having this feeling of intoxication in his life. He felt as if he belonged at last…and someone belonged to him. Only him.
He went straight to Mehru’s father.
Glossary of terms
Takht: a big ornate wooden throne-like chair
Mukaish: an art-form in embroidery of silver pieces especially manufactured for this purpose are used.
Churidaar: a skinny jeans kind of traditional wear with gatherings at the ankle.
Shalwar: a loose trouser
Mehru woke up to the din of the aftermath of Jamal’s announcement that resonated all the way to her room. Jamal had obviously spoken to her grandmother because it was pandemonium out there. As much as Mehru concentrated on the voices, she didn’t hear her grandmother at all. Everyone else was talking at the top of their voices. The whole family was there. There were tears, and loud wails of despair from Sania and her mother.
Bibi sat on the chair, calmly stitching her clothing as if all was normal.
Mehru listened to it all. The intermittent silences, the crying, then someone would begin talking again and it all started over. This was her moment, Mehru thought. History will repeat itself, grandmother. You’ll see your dream shattered. Just like you shattered my mother’s. Steeling herself, Mehru went outside. Jamal was watching her, his expression guarded, but his gaze never wavered. It made the same promises he had made last night and held the same tempered joy, even though his face was drawn. He looked tired. Sania and her mother gave her venomous looks. Her grandmother stared at her in cold anger.
Then she spoke.
‘What did I tell you, Farooq? You brought this trouble here. Like mother like daughter. You can still save this family. Take her back. Jamal will get over this foolishness.’
So this was what her grandmother had been waiting for, her target—her enemy, her disavowed grandchild Mehru- the outcast. She still didn’t quite believe her plans would be foiled.
‘This isn’t foolishness. Even if you send Mehru away, I’ll follow her and bring her back¬–as my wife.’ Jamal’s voice sounded tight.
Ajoo Chacha spoke in his calm gentle tones, ‘Ami Begum, it’s not such a disaster as you seem to think.’
Her father sat there, not saying a word, wringing his hands, looking like a guilty murderer. Which he was, thought Mehru. He was even more to be blamed for her mother’s death than her grandmother.
‘We’re not discussing this, Ajoo. Farooq, you need to understand only that she cannot stay here another minute. Do what you will with her. As for Jamal, you are a sensible young man. This is just a whim. It’ll pass.’
Jamal stared at her grandmother and then said very calmly, ‘I’m going to marry Mehru. That’s something you’ll have to accept. You can do that by giving us your blessing, which means a lot to me, or you can accept it by cutting us out of your life. The choice is yours.’
Mehru saw the first flicker of fear in her grandmother’s eyes. Her wrath unleashed in a low menacing voice.
‘She is nothing. She is a mistake. Mere evidence of a foolish boy’s mistake. He suffered for it, and now makes us suffer. Do you want to go down the same road? Look at him, still reaping the bad harvest of his selfish thoughtless seeds.’
‘She’s not a mistake. She’s a person. She’s your grand-daughter!’
‘Enough! You will not take this any further. Farooq, get her out of here.’
‘Ami Begum, please…’
Her father pleaded and Jamal stood up slowly and came to stand beside Mehru. She felt her heart swell despite herself. It was all a set-up but Jamal was playing his part magnificently. And her father, was as usual wringing his hands on the side-lines sacrificing all the other women in his life for his mother.
‘I was hoping Mehru would stay in this house as my bride but if this is what you wish…we’ll just have to leave tonight. We’ll have the nikaah at a mosque and you won’t see us again.’
In the silence that followed, Mehru heard the birds chirping outside, heralding dusk. The whole day had been wasted. The velvety darkness of a summer’s night would be swift in its wake.
Mallo Chachi sobbed. Ajoo Chacha looked weary.
Her grandmother looked stunned. ‘You would do that? You would defy me?’ She was aghast. ‘I…loved you like my own son. Jamal? You would do this to me?’
It was an entreaty, she was almost pleading. Mehru saw Jamal’s face register pain and regret. She said softly, and whispered, ‘You don’t have to do this, Jamal. I’m so sorry. I am afraid I will only bring ill-luck to you.’
And that was that. His back straightened. His facial muscles tightened. He looked at them all, as if daring them to speak, as he held her hand, ‘I wish things could have been different, Ami Begum. Ajoo Baba, Mallo Apa, I’m sorry for causing you pain but I’m marrying Mehru tonight.’
‘Jamal…just give us a moment.’ Ajoo Chacha said mildly, and then looked at his mother.
‘This is Farooq’s daughter. She’s…’
‘Nothing! She’s nothing and nobody. You said to me Jamal, innocent until proven guilty…what do you say now? Has she not destroyed our peace? She’s the same. Thief, like her mother was.’
Mehru had the sudden urge to shout at her and tell her exactly what she thought of her but this was not the moment to reveal her talents with languages. Jamal saw her in a certain way and that façade must stay in place till the final act of this little play was over.
‘What is she guilty of, Ami Begum? She has not done anything. I’m the one who…overstepped perhaps. I asked that I should be allowed to marry her. She didn’t encourage me, even when I went to ask her for permission to ask her father. Believe me she didn’t jump at the offer. She was concerned about your reaction, what you’d say, and how you would react to me.’
Her grandmother looked at her, and Mehru couldn’t help the slow triumphant smile that stole into her eyes as she stared back at grandmother. Her grandmother’s eyes widened a little, she whispered, ‘Jamal…you’re making a mistake…don’t…’
‘I just hope one day you’ll be able to forgive me and see Mehru for who she truly is…’
‘I see her for who she is, Jamal. It’s you who will regret this. Listen to me, it’s not too late.’
‘I cannot. It’s beyond my power…and yours.’ Holding on to Mehru’s hand, Jamal strode out of the door.
She heard her father. His voice was reedy. But her grandmother’s was a broken strain, as she whispered, ‘Let him go.’
And then Mehru was outside, her hand in Jamal’s, down the sweeping steps and beyond the white columns. Her heart raced. She’d done it! She’d broken that tyrant and it was over. She’d won! It had been so easy. Take that you old tyrant, Mehru, thought exultantly.
Jamal was opening the car door for her.
‘Let’s just get out of her first…or would you rather I get Mallo Apa to come with us?’
‘No…no, I just…’
He smiled as if she’d given him some secret signal that he was pleased to receive. Without another word went to the other side and into the driving seat. The engine roared and they sped out. He didn’t look angry or harassed at all. He was calm. That gave her courage to speak.
‘Jamal…we have to talk about this…’
‘There’s nothing to talk about. I’m not going back there. I bought a house a couple of years ago but they wouldn’t let me move out. We’ve got nothing to worry about.’
‘That’s not what I meant. Why don’t you stop the car and let me explain?’
‘The mosque isn’t too far. I’ll stop there.’
‘It’s okay, Mehru. We’ll have plenty of time to talk. Let’s just get the nikaah done first.’
His smile wasn’t at all strained or worried, it was reassuring, in fact. He didn’t seem affected at all that his life had just turned upside down. She had to stop this.
‘I can’t marry you Jamal.’
Glossary of terms:
Apa: older sister
Chacha: paternal uncle
Chachi: paternal uncle’s wife
Nikaah: marriage vows
Jamal gave a low throaty laugh. ‘I knew that’d be your reaction. How like you to say that, thinking of the well-being of others. Mehru, I don’t care about anything if I can’t have you. I told you I’d defy the world for you. I’ve never gone back on my word ever…but I did, today. I broke the code I’ve lived by all my life, for you. There’s nothing that you can say that’ll change my mind. I’ve never behaved like this before, but I don’t regret it Mehru, not one bit. It was an easy choice for me, believe me.’
Mehru’s heart sank with guilt. She felt a faint misgiving but she thought she might as well wait for him to stop the car. Soon he did, in front of an impressive old mosque. As he parked the car Jamal said, ‘I’ll be back in a minute okay?’
Without waiting for her reply he got out and entered the small gate on the side of the main mosque entrance. Mehru waited for him to get back so she could break his heart. What was she going to say to him? How would he react? He was a practical grown up man. Surely he’d see how it benefited him as well? Sure she’d been a little under-handed but then she was after vengeance, that’s never pretty. Ten minutes later he was back, his face looking more relaxed than before.
‘We’ll have to wait a few minutes before we can go in for the marriage ceremony, the nikaah. I’ll be there with you so it won’t be difficult for you to say the words, okay? You’ll just have to repeat what the qazi sahib says. I’ve told him to speak slowly so you’ll…’
‘Jamal. Please, stop and listen to me.’
He gave her sudden flash of smile, full of some secret knowledge, but quickly repressed it. Then looking away he said softly, his voice warm and silky, ‘Erm…if you’re worried about this being our wedding night, we won’t…’
Suddenly irate, Mehru snapped at him.
‘Jamal! I cannot marry you because I lied to you. I don’t want to marry you. This was all to get even with that old tyrant. I was pretending all this time! I wanted to get even with my grandmother. She called my mother a slut. She ruined my mother’s life. My mother died thinking that she’d destroyed my father’s life and my father…He let her destroy his life and my mother’s. She destroyed my family, my childhood and I hate her!’
He stared at her blankly. She could feel the tears gathering in her eyes, so she blinked rapidly and said slowly, ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry you had to be dragged into this but…she loves you, she trusts you. I wanted her to know what it felt like to be betrayed. I wanted her to feel what my mother felt when she was betrayed by my father. My mother lived like an exile all her life because of her.’
Mehru paused and looked at Jamal. He was still staring at her, his face grim, shocked and disbelieving. Gently, she added, ‘I…I…hope you understand…it’s nothing to do with you. You’re a wonderful, kind man and I hope you’re very happy…but it’s not going to be with me. I’m really sorry, Jamal. All I want is to go back home, you see. I cannot marry you. I thought I could do it but I can’t. This is enough to show her. I’m sorry…’
Jamal’s eyes were changing slowly now…from shock, to disbelief to rage. They were turning hard and uncompromising. His jaw tightened, and a look of sheer incredulity flashed across his face before it shuttered down to a gaunt mask. Quickly she added, almost afraid to let him speak, ‘I’ll go back with Bibi. I can go back. Please believe me when I tell you how sorry I am.’
He looked like a stranger. His face was expressionless and his eyes bore no resemblance to velvet, or sexy sleepiness. Mehru felt that slight lick of fear again, and to counter it she spoke lightly, as if it was a good joke between two friends.
‘I’m sure you’ll be thanking me in a week’s time when you realize I saved you from that little goose.’
Jamal flexed his hands on the wheel of his new motor-car. He was the proud owner of the tenth motor-car in the city of Lahore. He stared at the mosque for a long time and then up into the dark sky, visible through the windshield. There were stars and a half moon. Streaks of grey cloud were strewn across the parts of sky made lighter by moonshine. But he did not speak. Mehru was getting nervous.
He turned towards her slowly. There was nothing in his face of the man she’d become used to seeing. This is what a killer looks like before he kills, she thought, and her legs turned to jelly. When he spoke, his voice was low and even.
‘The qazi will be here soon with the registration papers for the nikaah. When he comes I’ll take you inside and we’ll be married…’
She interrupted him shrilly, ‘Jamal! Haven’t you been listening? I just told you I can’t marry you! Don’t you understand? It was all just a hoax. There isn’t going to be any marriage, Jamal. I have to go back home as soon as possible. I never want to see that old crone again. Just take me home. I’ll go in the backdoor. No one will know. Bibi and I will leave.’
Mehru had no way of knowing that she was making things worse for herself. When she finished, he continued as if she hadn’t spoken.
‘After the nikaah, I’ll take you home…’
‘What the bloody hell? Aren’t you listening? I am not marrying you.’
His voice was calm, when he replied, ‘That you will, Mehrunissa.’
Mehru stared at him. He sounded resigned. Cool. Emotionless. As if there was no contest of the truth of that statement.
She replied with ire, ‘This isn’t eighteen fifty, Jamal. I am new woman of the new century. I’m not some helpless female you may be used to here. I have rights and I’m not afraid to create a ruckus. You so much as lay a hand on me, and I’ll…’
His laugh was short and mirthless. ‘You misunderstand me. I have no desire to touch you, or even look at you, Mehrunissa. But make no mistake–you will marry me tonight. You will do so quietly and without trouble. If you so much as open your mouth without my permission once we’re out of this car, I’ll make sure you never set eyes on your precious England again. And unlike you, I don’t make idle threats.’
‘Bibi and Mallo Chachi…’
‘Aren’t here. And by the time they get here, we’ll be married. No one will, and can interfere between a husband and his wife. Not even in the new century. Now get out of the car, cover your head with your scarf, and follow my lead.’
Mehru didn’t move. She glared at him. He simply stared back at her with that unrelenting blank look. After glaring at him for a good one minute and seeing no change in his cold expression, Mehru decided to change tack.
‘Jamal…please, you’re a good man…you don’t want to do this…’
‘You’re right on both counts. But I have to do this. I will do this. I made a mistake and now I must see it through.’
He got out of the car and came to her side. Too late, Mehru tried to lock the door. He simply opened it with his car keys, and gripping her arm in a vice, he almost dragged her out.
‘Jamal…you’re making a big mistake. I don’t forgive easily. I’ll make you pay….’
He didn’t even slacken his pace. Once inside, he held on to her arm and told the man to proceed. The man was ancient, and paid no heed to Mehru’s pleading looks or tears. Jamal was holding on to her like she was a slippery eel. She had no idea what the man said that first time. When Jamal told her to repeat the Arabic verses, she remained mutinously silent.
In a cool, impersonal voice he said, ‘I have your passport. Ajoo Baba gave it to me for your visa renewal. We can stay here all night. But marry me, you will…tonight, tomorrow, day after…We’re not leaving here till we’re married.’
All her words died on her lips, because Jamal’s eyes were cold as flint and his jaw was set in relentless lines. She knew that no matter what she said, or did, nothing was going to dissuade him. He was beyond reason. Not for a moment did he loosen his grip on her arm or show the slightest inclination to soften his expression. His cold eyes were only warning her in silence. She stared at his implacable features as he gazed back at her steadily, emotionless and determined.
‘And if I do…will you let me go then?’ She asked tremulously.
Jamal said simply, ‘Just make it easier on yourself and get on with it.’
For the first time since the fiasco had begun, Mehru felt defeated. And slowly, haltingly, through her sobs she repeated the verses and signed the papers. How it ended, or what happened afterwards she had no idea. The next thing she registered was that they were entering a gorgeous house. Her tears had finally dried up. She felt emotionally and physically depleted.
A middle aged man came running when their car cruised in. Jamal alighted, and said something to the man, who went running again. Jamal came to her side of the car and opened the car door. He didn’t even look at her.
He started towards the main entrance, without waiting for her.
She dragged herself out of the car and followed him. This was all a nightmare and none of it was real. She was going to wake up any minute now. Her brain had had too much to process, so it was now numb and in denial.
She saw a woman, a maid probably who said something to her and Mehru didn’t understand. Her ears were buzzing. Jamal spoke and the woman laughed and smiled, and started touching Mehru on her head and shoulders in some sort of benediction. She led her upstairs to a bedroom, chattering all the while. Mehru lay down on the bed and closed her eyes, exhausted and depleted. She fell asleep immediately.
Glossary of terms
Nikaah: marriage vows
Chachi: paternal uncle’s wife
In his study, Jamal stared into the darkness thinking what a fool Mehru had made of him. He’d practically asked to be her sacrificial lamb. If only Ami Begum knew how like her, Mehru really was…and if she knew, how like the grandmother she hated, she actually was…But he couldn’t bear to think of her. He never wanted to see her again. He never wanted to set eyes on that beautiful, heartless woman he’d fallen so blindly in love with.
What the hell was he going to do? He felt desolate. Gutted. Every breath was painful. How could she have done this to him? He’d done her no harm, and she’d so completely destroyed him. Heartless, cruel, vicious woman.
Ajoo Baba and Mallo Apa would likely show up soon. He was not going to let anyone know about what an idiot he’d been. Not under any circumstances, was Ami Begum ever going to find out that he’d broken his word, his code, all that he’d held dear for years, over a girl who’d proved to be everything that Ami Begum had said she was. Jamal had disbelieved every word. He had so badly wanted to in fact, that he’d completely fooled himself, or rather let her fool him.
And now he must live with it.
He closed his eyes. For a few hours he’d believed himself to be the luckiest man on earth. For a few hours, he’d believed he had everything he could ever have dreamed of…while for weeks he’d been falling in love with a treacherous, vindictive little harlot, with a face that belied her lying heart. She had no qualms about destroying lives or breaking hearts and trust. Did she hold nothing sacred? How calmly she’d lied to him, looked at him with those sad eyes, hinted at having feelings for him, encouraged him to believe in a dream she knew she was going to shatter when her end was achieved.
He paced the room as the anger resurfaced hot and dark. She’d waited for him to make a complete ass of himself, and then told him like it was something funny, as if she was just sharing a trick she’d played and they’d be laughing about it soon. Did she expect him to laugh with her as she broke his heart?
No doubt, she was promiscuous too. Ami Begum had said she was a bad woman like her mother. She definitely must be one. She’d proved it. If she could’ve fooled someone like him…and he recalled with embarrassment the way his blood heated and his heart raced at the sight of her, and that night in the library, he’d had to exercise supreme control because she brought out this primitive need in him to possess and claim, what havoc she might have wreaked on other men, the ones less tempered than him.
It was a good thing he’d be busy with his lawsuits for the next few days. He’d get time to cool down a bit and most of all he wouldn’t have to lay eyes on this despicable Circe. How easy it was to turn love to hate…and this hate he felt, it was so dark, so deep that she’d ceased to exist for him the moment she uttered the truth. She was nothing more than a liability now. Nothing more than a symbol of the biggest miscalculation of his life, a mistake…
That’s what Ami Begum had called her too. How ironic. She was a mistake all around. With that thought, Jamal dismissed his wife from his mind and his life, with a clear and precise weighing of the evidence against her. She was going to get no quarter from him.
For two days, Mehru waited for Jamal to show up at a less ungodly hour so she could talk to him but it seemed that he had completely forgotten her existence. By day three, she’d had enough. The depression that she’d succumbed to had now dissolved into anger. She had no clothes and no money. She was at the end of her tether.
That night she waited in his study. He’d been locking himself in and sleeping there so as not to give the servants cause to gossip. As if they didn’t know! At nearly one in the morning she heard his car and gathered her frayed nerves for the encounter.
He walked into the room but he didn’t see her at once. He took off his black lawyer’s jacket and tie and turned, his hand on one cuff link as he tried to undo it and his eyes fell on her. His face turned to granite.
‘Get out,’ he growled.
‘Gladly. Give me some money and I’ll be out of here.’
‘I don’t want to have to look at you, or speak with you. If there’s anything you want to say to me, write it down and send it in through the maid. This room is barred to you. If I ever see you here again, I will physically throw you out. Now. Leave.’
He turned his back to her. Mehru was trembling for some reason and her breath had hitched.
‘I…I don’t even have any clothes….I don’t…’
‘I’ll tell Mallo Apa and Bibi to bring your stuff. And when she comes—when anyone comes—you will act like the happy bride you’ll never be. If you so much as hint at what transpired since that most unfortunate night, I promise you, I’ll make you sorry you ever laid on me.’
He turned towards her again, and said in a deadly low voice, ‘I’ll put you under lock and key. Got that?’
She stared at him, open mouthed. He turned his back to her again.
‘You can’t do that…’
‘Can’t I? You’re my wife. I can do anything I please with you. Don’t you know according to British Law, I own you?’
‘Ha! But according to Islamic law, you don’t and I have rights and …’
‘But we don’t follow Islamic Law do we? We follow the British Law. You are mine. I could establish ownership if the concept is difficult for you to understand?’
His voice was low, menacing. Mehru’s lips trembled. What did he mean? Was he going to hit her? Was he going to imprison her? Or was he….
Sure she was going to bawl like a baby, she rushed out of the room and upstairs. How could she have ever thought that he was harmless? He was a tyrant just like her grandmother. That’s why Ami Begum loved him so much. She’d made him in her own image.
She’d realized it too late. She’d already enmeshed herself into another web and she had to get herself out of it. She had to be clever and resourceful and take her chance with Mallo Chachi and Bibi, when they came with her clothes. She had to make her escape then.
Jamal sank in his chair.
His heart was thudding, his blood pounding in his ears. Slowly he took his tie off. Angel face. That’s what he’d thought when he’d first seen her. She still reminded him of one. Even now. Even now that he knew what a little witch she was. Beautiful and treacherous.
He rested his head back in the chair, looking up at the ceiling.
He had to make sure he stayed away from her. There was only one way to do that and it might not even make such a scandal if he was careful.
The next morning Mehru woke up early in anticipation of her great escape. Soon a carriage drove in, bearing Ajoo Chacha, Mallo Chachi and Bibi. She flew out to them, trying hard not to cry.
Mallo Chachi exclaimed, ‘Oh my dear! Everything’s just fine.’
Bibi came beaming and hugged her.
‘The old dame has taken to her bed,’ she whispered in her ear but Mehru felt regret, instead of joy, and that made her feel worse.
‘I’m so happy to see you all!’
She couldn’t help it, tears spilled out.
‘Ami Begum may still angry but she’ll come around don’t worry. We can’t stay too long but we’ll have tea with you. If you want to change first we’ll wait.’
‘Oh will you? Thank you so much. I’ll be back soon.’
She took a good twenty minutes before she came back but she felt much better, more like her old self and less like a helpless victim. Tea came as soon as she joined them and Bibi poured.
‘Mallo Chachi…I have a confession…’
Bibi jumped in with a laugh.
‘Oh my dear little dove, don’t be so silly. To love is divine and we understand it.’
She said it smiling but her eyes were steel. Mehru looked at her forlorn and divided. Bibi came and sat down beside her.
‘I am here now. I will stay here with you.’
‘I didn’t really mean any of this to happen. You have to help me. Jamal seems to misunderstand…’
Mehru whispered and Bibi chanced a frantic glance at the others. They hadn’t heard thank fully.
‘Shh, all in good time. I’m here now.’
Mallo Chachi began in soothing tones, ‘Mehru…look, Jamal told us you were upset. These things happen, my love. Husbands can’t be around all the time to keep you company, they have to work…and I’m sorry you two had a fight so soon, and I know Jamal should give you more time. I’ll talk to him. But you’re a wife now and you have to keep that in mind. You have responsibilities. ’
‘What?’ Confused and completely riled Mehru stared at them, her mouth hanging open in shock.
‘It’s okay, Mehru, Jamal told us. You don’t have to pretend. He said you were…angry.’
Mallo Chachi made it sound like she was mad.
‘I don’t think you understand…’
Ajoo Chacha said gravely, ‘Mehru, you’re his responsibility now. Your husband’s consent is supreme. Bibi’s here to help you.’
Mallo Chachi added in a false high voice, ‘And we’ll come again I promise. As soon as we can.’
Quickly, Mallo Chachi hugged her and kissed her on her forehead, making ready to go.
‘Bibi, we have to go with them,’ Mehru hissed.
Bibi shook her head and glared.
‘He’s a monster. He threatened to lock me up after he found out I’d just used him and –‘
‘What?’ Bibi hissed. ‘Don’t tell me you were foolish enough to tell him?’
‘I had to or he would’ve thought—‘
Bibi closed her eyes in despair.
‘Have I taught you nothing little dove?’
Mallo Chachi and Ajoo Chacha were almost at the coach.
‘Bibi, this is our last chance, if that man comes home we’re prisoners. Do something!’
Mallo Chachi looked back with a last smile.
‘Wait!’ Mehru ran ahead in desperation.
‘You have to take us with you. Jamal is not who you think he is, I am not who you think I am and I can’t stay here. Take me with you.’
Utter silence greeted her words.
Glossary of terms:
Chacha: paternal uncle
Chachi: wife of paternal uncle
Mallo Chachi looked at Bibi. Ajoo Chacha looked at the sky and the trees. Bibi sighed and came forward.
‘The poor dear is exhausted. Must be the heat. Go on then Mallo Jee. Goodbye.’
‘Bibi!’ Mehru stared at her. ‘You can’t do this. We have to go with them. He’s going to imprison me. He said so…you don’t know him. He’s not who you think he is…’
They looked at her, and each other in alarm. Mallo Chachi hugged her and whispered, ‘Hush now! You can’t talk like this about your husband. Of course he’s going to lay down a few rules Mehru but he’s an educated man and don’t you remember how he said he loved you, in front of everyone? He’s going to make you very happy. You’ll see. I know my Jamal.’
‘Oh I think you don’t!’
Bibi held her from the shoulders making soothing sounds one would make to a hysterical child.
‘Bibi stop this. You know what I’m talking about. Tell them.’
When she turned her head again she was looking at the departing coach. She stared after it, listening to the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves.
‘Thanks a lot Bibi. Now you are a prisoner as well.
Bibi laughed and said, ‘Oh my dear. I cannot believe you told your husband that you made a fool of him and expected him to not react like he has.’
Mehru glared at Bibi and flounced inside.
She cried herself to sleep. She sobbed and howled and didn’t even try to control it. She refused to speak with Bibi, who went to find herself some tea and livelier company in the kitchen.
So when Jamal entered her room that evening she was exhausted with crying. Her eyes were swollen and she felt helpless and all alone.
He watched her quietly for a moment, and then in his icy, contemptuous voice, he said, ‘If I have to come to your—lair—to warn you again, it will be most unpleasant for you. Don’t keep making the same mistakes. If you listen to me, you’ll make your life a little easier for yourself. Mallo Apa told me about your theatrics and I’ve told them not to come here again until I ask them to, seeing as you’re susceptible to hysteria. I told you, I don’t want to have to look at you. So stay out of my way. Conduct yourself in a manner that doesn’t oblige me to give you repeated warnings. Is that clear?’
She didn’t answer. Her last chance at escape had been vanquished by none other than Bibi. She couldn’t speak. Couldn’t even look at him.
‘Is that clear Mehrunnissa? Do not make me stoop to doing things I might learn to enjoy.’
That made her look up. Was he hinting at violence? Giving her a disdainful look, he left.
But he shouldn’t have said what he did. He shouldn’t have threatened her. He should not have made the mistake of thinking she was a coward or could be cowed. Mehru raised herself from the bed slowly. He really shouldn’t have. She knew at some level that she’d wronged him. She knew it. But she was a Rajput like her grandmother. And nothing energized Rajputs, more than vendettas, her mother had told her once.
There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help and what they cannot. Plato was nobody’s fool.
Jamal had sealed his own fate, with this feudal attitude. She dragged herself off the bed and took a long cleansing shower to wash away her previous guilt over using him, and then she went downstairs to eat. She hadn’t had a decent mean in three days. How was she going to plot, if her mind wasn’t working?
Jamal ate separately. He obviously couldn’t stand the sight of her. Mehru ate single-mindedly. Her eyes fixed at a spot on the table she ate mechanically, neither tasting nor looking at her food. Just eating to fuel her brain and letting her mind grind back into life after its brief hiatus into helpless victimized mode.
‘Thank God for small mercies,’ said Bibi.
‘You are not my friend.’ Mehru told her stuffing her mouth with a chunk of paratha.
‘Of course I am. The only one.’
‘You should’ve listened to me. He is a monster.’ Mehru bit off a piece of chicken off and put it in her mouth.
‘He is a man.’
‘Exactly my point.’ Mehru scooped peas up in a spoon and chewed like there was no tomorrow.
Bibi looked at her with a faint look of alarm.
‘You sure look hungry.’
‘I am. Haven’t eaten in two days. That….man…made me marry him, brought me to this place and my one and only friend won’t help me escape. I am on my own. And I will not let this happen to me. I have to eat.’
She put a piece of potato in her mouth and glared at Bibi chewing judiciously.
Bibi looked away quickly.
‘You think this is funny? You think I will let a man treat me like this after what happened with my mother?’
Bibi tskd and said, ‘This is completely different. Jamal is not your father.’
‘No, he isn’t. He is in love with you Mehru, and you told him you used him—‘
‘So that he wouldn’t marry me! To save him.’
‘Men don’t want to be saved. Especially not from women. He wanted to marry you. He fought with his entire world for you. You shouldn’t have told him.’
‘Ah, so I’m wrong because I told the truth?’
‘Truth is over-rated.’
‘Bibi, trust you to say something like that. Maddening as you are, I’m so glad you’re here. I don’t feel so alone and helpless anymore.’
‘You will never be alone, my love. Never. Not ever again.’
Bibi smiled looking at Mehru thanking God that the marriage had taken place despite Mehru’s unwise confession. If something were to happen to her now, Mehru would be safe. Jamal would always protect her.
‘All we have to do now, is plan.’
Drawn out of her reverie, Bibi merely raised her eyebrows.
‘Well, it’s very simple Bibi. Jamal is very honourable, very decent. You are right. I miscalculated. He was protecting his honour by making sure we got married.’
‘Exactly. It was nothing to do with you.’
Bibi said wryly. Mehru frowned but continued, ‘So the only thing to do now is to make sure his honour demands that he let me go. I am going to make his life so miserable, he will have to let me go. Viola. Freedom.’
Bibi looked at her little girl and sighed in resignation as she chewed and smiled, with her eyes glittering as she planned vengeance.
Glossary of terms
Chachi: wife of paternal Uncle
Chacha: Paternal uncle
Paratha: traditional layered flat bread made with oil
Apa: older sister
The next morning, after breakfast, Mehru told Bibi to keep everyone away from her. No one was to disturb her. She sneaked into Jamal’s study when Bibi wasn’t hovering. She wanted to root around for clues, and plan a fitting retribution for her husband. Jamal, she knew, was a man of honor. What he was doing to her was a way to preserve that honor he so cherished. He’d married her because that code demanded that he do so. He didn’t want to see her, because that honor he loved so much made it impossible for him to forgive her. Nothing mattered to him more than his bloody code.
So, her plan was simple.
She was going to be the source of his public dishonor so that he’d have no choice but to cut himself off her. She was going to make him so miserable that he’d have no option but to divorce her, and then she’d be free. A social outcast, but free. The notion scared her a little. Divorce was unheard of. Unthinkable. Ruin.
But she couldn’t go on like this. She couldn’t live like this. She didn’t wonder about why she felt so miserable. It was her father and her grandmother, Mehru told herself. They made her miserable. It was her mother’s life and death she wanted to avenge.
Rummaging through his study table drawers, she found a list of names and addresses of Jamal’s friends and colleagues. Why was he so organized, she thought in irritation. So convenient and so easy. She would have to write the invitations. She sat down to copy the postal addresses and names. Poor Jamal had always been so easy. She copied down each and every one of those addresses, including his family’s. Then she wrote the invitations from him, telling them all how very excited he was to announce his marriage to Mehrunnissa, the daughter of Sahibzada Farooq Ahmed Khan. He and his grandmother would be so very happy if they could come to their dinner in a week’s time to their home. That done, she went to Bibi and told her the plan. Bibi nearly fainted.
‘Oh no. Oh no. oh no.’
‘Bibi. It has to be done. Take this money,’ she handed he the money Mallo Chachi had given her some for her dowry, or something when she came. ‘You have to make sure it’s done. It must be a secret.’
‘Till he sees a hundred guests in his house.’
Mehru looked shocked.
‘Not a hundred, Bibi.’
Bibi looked relieved.
‘A hundred and fifty.’
She laughed and said, ‘Bibi, do you want me to be happy?’
Bibi looked at her favourite person in the world and realized that maybe a nudge in the wrong direction would bring Jamal to his senses. How could he let his love die for Mehru just because she had been foolish enough to confess her schemes? Maybe, when everyone’s wrath descended upon Mehru after this clearly unwise step, and it would, Jamal wold defend her and realize how vulnerable she was. Bibi agreed.
The palanquin was called and Bibi sat inside, drawing the curtain down and set off with the invitations to deliver the invitations herself. She would have to tell Gulaabo all the details. Bibi sighed. Children could be so vexing, especially when they were all grown up.
The entire week, Bibi and Mehru were on tenterhooks. But the y needn’t have worried. Jamal noticed nothing. He hardly even noticed her, Mehru thought tartly.
The following week, Mehru chose to wear one of her most immodest saris. A silky fuchsia pink, with a blouse that had a rather deeper neckline than was acceptable. Her midriff showed. Just two inches of it. Bibi was horrified.
‘You are not going like this…oh my heart…my heart…’
‘Okay fine. I’ll wear a shawl.’ Mehru gave in with a huff and Bibi’s heart problem went away in peace.
Soon, palanquins were being brought into the veranda. Bibi and Mehru greeted the guests. No sign of her grandmother or other relatives. They had to come. Jamal would come a little late. Too late to know what to do. The men were being escorted to the drawing room. She saw her father amongst the men, along with a couple of other relatives, from the safety of a window. Good. One down. Mallo Chaachi would bring her grandmother she hoped.
The furore at the arrival of all the ladies was a well-controlled flurry of running servants, coded looks, and intermittent trays of drink and appetizers. Bibi had taken off towards the kitchens to help.
Her grandmother walked in with Mallo Chachi. Mehru took swayed towards her grandmother. Talk dimmed, her grandmother’s mouth fell open as she saw her.
Mehru said, ‘Ami Begum, adaab. I am so grateful you came. You forgave Jamal?’ Then she looked around at the other women and said in a plaintive tone, ‘I mean, what was Jamal thinking, eloping with me to marry me! And not even the night we eloped. For a whole night we had to live in the same house alone, without a chaperone, and unmarried.’
There were gasps. Mehru suspected a lady fainted. She didn’t stop to check.
‘And yet Ami Begum has forgiven him.’
Her grandmother was pale and still. She sat down on the nearest chair.
‘But I so love Jamal,’ Mehru giggled.
Someone else did too. Others were watching her with horror. Mehru watched shadows in the veranda. Men were being escorted in the drawing room.
‘Jamal is like a hero, you know. From movies. He loves me to sing for him. Usually the new ones by Gauhar Jaan.’
At the mention of the famous prostitute from Calcutta, there was a definite thud as someone fainted. Yes, definite faint that one, Mehru thought.
‘Some water please,’ the husky whisper was from her grandmother. Mehru turned towards her and smiled. Her grandmother’s eyes swivelled towards the door. Mehru’s did too. Jamal stood there carved in stone.
The party was in full swing by the time Jamal came home around nine. He’d only come home early, because one of his friends had met him with the strangest announcement. His friend, he hadn’t seen in months, was apparently going to be late to his dinner. He certainly couldn’t make it before nine, he apologized. He was even more surprised to see so many carriages outside the house, lined on the street-side. His gatekeeper informed him with a big grin that there was a ‘party’ at the house.
With escalating fury, he realized that it was obviously, something to do with his newly acquired wife. Mehru spotted the fleeting shock on her husband’s face, quickly masked. No well-bred person showed shock at the presence of a guest. Especially unexpected ones. Mehru bit her lip to keep from laughing.
‘Jamal! Go to the men’s area, you are so voh! I will sing for you in a minute.’
Jamal’s face was slowly gaining life. It turned red. Then white. Then he gave her one long, long look and left. Right behind his fleeing footsteps Mehru sent the latest lyrics of a raunchy song by a prostitute all of India loved to talk about.
With escalating fury, Jamal walked towards the drawing room full of men…including his father in law, who looked wild-eyed and on the verge of hysteria. Jamal took a deep breath and greeted everyone, while the voice of his wife, singing about her wedding night and the fun she’d had with her ‘naughty lover’, serenaded her father.
Jaw clenched, Jamal threaded his way towards the men, who smirked and sniggered. He greeted them all with a casual smile and off-handed remarks.
‘Nice voice…why waste her here with all the women?’ someone whispered in his ear. They thought it was a prostitute.
‘Wrong. Just wrong. It should be us looking at that mouth that emits such a voice…’
Jamal nearly punched the man. Then realized he didn’t know. Then realized that was exactly why Mehru had done this. Then he found himself smiling. He checked it. This was no laughing matter.
The voice was still lilting words of such horrific duplicity, he couldn’t help looking at his father in law, who was trying his best to talk in a loud voice to shut out the words of his daughter. Jamal wiped the grin off his face with his hand, trying to control his own hysterical laughter. What the hell was wrong with her?
He pulled my veil and he tickled the heart of me…
He found Bibi as he knew he would in the kitchen.
‘Jamal Mian, what are you doing here?’
‘Bibi. Make her stop.’
Bibi smiled and said, ‘You don’t know her very well do you? I cannot stop her.’
‘Then who can?’
‘Maybe, you’re asking the wrong question.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Maybe it isn’t who, but how?’
Jamal, at the end of his tether asked, in a fierce whisper, ‘Alright. How?’
Bibi gave him a long look and said, ‘I think you know, Jamal. The best answers are always the simplest. Love.’
Jamal stared at her and then whipped around. Through the kitchen he entered the little passageway between the sitting room and the kitchen that led to the dining room. Hidden, he watched his wife, making eyes at her grandmother and singing her wild song. Again, he felt the involuntary smile take over. God she was beautiful. And so brave. And ridiculous, and maddening and so inappropriate.
Ami Begum was looking at his wife like one would at a snake, and he felt that old urge to protect her take over. He had to protect her from herself before he did anything else. Still smiling and shaking his head at her silly antics, he went to find Bibi again. Did Mehru think he was going to give her up over some silly songs, if he hadn’t given her up over her betrayal?
‘Bibi. Alright. I take your point. Please ask Mehru to come out in the back garden. Tell her, her father wants to see her.’
‘Bibi, trust me. We both want the same thing, don’t we? Mehru is doing all this because she wants acceptance from her father. She has felt betrayed all her life. Avenging her mother is all that matters to her. His love is all that matters.’
‘But Jamal, that is not at all what I meant. She is hurt and she did this not to hurt you but—‘
‘That is not what I’m talking about, Bibi. What she did to me…that is another matter. But she has to stop now. I’ll ask Farooq Chacha to talk to her and maybe some sort of reconciliation can be brought about between the two of them? That would be a start.’
Bibi stared at him. Then she smiled.
‘You are a good man, Jamal.’
Jamal smiled and shrugged. Then he went to see his father-in-law. Maybe, her father’s love would heal her. Because he didn’t have any left for her.
Glossary of words:
Voh: slang women used in the early twentieth century for naughty
Chachi: paternal uncle’s wife
Chacha: Paternal Uncle
Bibi managed to lure Mehru out of the room. Mehru was sick of it all anyway. Her grandmother sighed with visible relief.
‘That went well,’ Mehru smiled.
‘Hmmm. You wait in the garden for me I’ll be back.’
‘Alright. I need the fresh air, after all that,’ Mehru laughed.
Bibi strolled away and Mehru walked into the back garden. To her surprise, Jamal was waiting for her. Mehru gave him a coquettish smile and fluttered her eyelashes.
He growled, ‘If you…ever…repeat anything, like this performance again I’ll…’
‘Stop threatening me. We both know you don’t mean it.’
‘It’s not a threat. It’s a promise.’
‘Really? Why don’t you just let me go then?’
‘That will never happen. Get used to your new life.’
His contempt was too obvious and for some reason it hurt. There was a part of her that wanted to abandon her goal of vengeance and pursue quite another goal. Make Jamal forget that she had used him. Make him love her again.
Angry and hurt at her divided self as well as her fate that had brought her to this juncture, Mehru lashed out viciously, ‘I hate you.’
‘Tell it to someone who cares.’
‘I’ll run away, Jamal, and I’ll…’
He gave her a long cold look, and then in his icy tone, he said, ‘I suggest you don’t try that, or you’ll find that I’m not quite as civilized as I seem.’
Mehru blanched and croaked, ‘Civilized? You? You Neanderthal!’
But she feared that he meant to beat her.
‘If you hit me I’ll….I’ll…’
Jamal laughed. It wasn’t a happy sound.
‘What will you do, Mehrunissa? Bat your eyelashes at me?’
‘I’ll hit you back, you…you…’
Jamal stared back at her for a full thirty seconds and then he said slowly, ‘Advertise your past to the world, see if I don’t care. Your past isn’t my problem. You are, however, and like I told you, I don’t make idle threats. I’ll rein you in any way I have to… so don’t push me to do things I’ve never done before.’
Irate, she goaded him, ‘But I did already. You fell in love, didn’t you? You’ve never done that before, have you?’
She smiled sweetly.
Clenching his fists, he said, ‘Last warning. ’
Mehru tried again, ‘Jamal, be reasonable. Why don’t you just let me go?’
Even if it would mean her ruin, she had to give him the option.
He stared at her as if she was an interesting species of the insect world. ‘For the final time, you’re not going anywhere. You’re my cross to bear. You made a fool of me…and you did…in a big way, I’m embarrassed to admit. I believed your act of innocence and painful loneliness, and I fell for that lie you created. I broke my word, and fought for a lie. You think I’m just going to let you go?’
‘So this is my punishment?’
His disdain translated into his voice, he said softly, ‘No, it’s mine.’
‘I’ll make your life miserable too.’
‘You already have…you exist.’
She resorted to taunts again.
‘You don’t have the guts to divorce me. You are afraid of the scandal it will cause.’
Jamal’s eyes shot fire. If he’d looked like a Minotaur before, he looked like a wrathful Titan now. His voice was low and even, as he said, ‘Nothing would give me more pleasure than to be rid of you. But you are right. I will never allow you to besmirch my name any more than you already have.’
His face was rigid. This wasn’t going the way she’d thought. He should’ve been too embarrassed by all the play-acting and he should be getting ready to let her go. He was made of sterner stuff apparently.
Just then Bibi returned with her father in tow. Jamal turned on his heels and greeting her father by touching his forehead with his hand respectfully, he went inside. Mehru stared defiantly at her father. He lips gave a small nervous little twitch that was Mehru supposed his attempt at smiling.
‘Mehru…This is not…I mean, your behaviour tonight…this not how Lispeth raised you…’
‘How would you know? You were never there.’
He nodded. Swallowed. Nodded again.
‘I know. I know that. But I also knew my…your mother. She was very conscientious. She wanted to raise you according to the traditions that she knew I valued. She was very aware of how much it meant to me.’
‘You’re right, she was…’
All the pain that she’d been feeling gathered in Mehru. Her mother’s loneliness, her blind love, her constant desire to please Mehru’s father. The way he had treated her mother in turn. Marrying her, abandoning her, re-marrying, never looking back. And yet, here he was telling her he had expectations.
‘You see, she did raise me with all your traditions and rubbish because she loved you so much. But here’s the difference. I don’t love you. I’ve been breaking those rules and those traditions she wanted me to have for you, because I don’t want to please you.’
Stricken, he stared. Mehru’s hurt raged inside her.
‘I’ll tell you a little secret.’ She dropped her voice to a whisper, ‘There is a reason that I had to marry so quickly,’
She came forward and looked into her father’s eyes. He was cruel this man. He had used and abused her mother and he had discarded them both for others. It was time he suffered some.
‘You see, I fell in love. He was from a good family. He said he’d marry me soon. I believed him, just like my mother believed you. But after getting what he wanted from me, he abandoned me. Just like you abandoned my mother. ’
His hand went to his chest.
‘What are you saying?’
‘I’m saying I had to marry Jamal because I’m carrying another man’s baby. But don’t worry, his blood was as pure as yours. Even if the baby is technically a bastard, it’ll have pure blood from his father’s side. Mine as you know is a bit tainted.’
His hand flew up as if to hit her and then he stopped.
‘It’s okay,’ she mocked. ‘No one knows. Only you and I know. He treated me the same way you treated my mother. Maybe that’s how men of good families behave. If Jamal realizes, he will divorce me. Imagine the scandal.’
Her father tottered to a nearby bench and fell into it.
‘Lispeth…this is not what Lispeth…’
‘No of course not. She taught me to be a good little girl. Every time you came she’d tell me to sing for you, recite a new poem I had learned, or read something to you I had written but you never had the time to listen. She was faithful to your memory and your traditions to her last breath. Always telling me that I was my father’s daughter.’
Her father’s face was ashen.
‘Who was it? I will kill that b…tell me his name. I swear to you…’
‘Oh what does that matter now? I have a husband, a home. Just don’t let it slip out. Or there’ll be a big bad scandal to face.’
She laughed and added, ‘I should look after my esteemed guests. Maybe sing another song or two.’
Mehru turned. Her laughter died on her lips.
Jamal stood in the shadows.
How long had he been there?
He came forward, his face pale. He stared at her for an infinity it seemed, and then asked hoarsely, ‘You’ve been here for two months…how far along are you?’
Her heart sank. He had heard. Oh no. Her heart wrenched at the sight of his face. This was not for him. It had been her revenge against her father. But her very next thought was that maybe, she could use this to give him the freedom he deserved. She and Bibi could go live in a small city somewhere. She could teach or write. Surely, they’d be able to survive on that? Even if they couldn’t, she couldn’t hold Jamal hostage to her vengeance. She had to let him go, even if it meant her own ruin. She could never win his love again. The realization was hurtful. She could have been happy with him if only her life had been different.
‘I…I found out when I came here, so about two months.’ Then she added in a whisper, ‘Does that mean I finally get my wish? You’ll divorce me?’
Jamal was regaining some colour but he still looked shell shocked. He gazed into her eyes, and his brown velvety ones were dull as he said, ‘I told you Mehrunissa, you’re my responsibility now.’ He continued to stare at her for an eternity it seemed, and then he added softly, ‘And it seems, so will be…your child.’
He walked away into the night, leaving Mehru staring after him with tears coursing down her cheeks.
Jamal found refuge in his study. He stared into nothing. The hot molten mass of her words, would be forever stuck against his eardrums. He’d never be rid of the echo of her words.
Had he truly been so stupid? How could she have done this to him? Those sad grey eyes had fooled him. She’d played him. God! He hurt so much. There wasn’t anyone he could talk to or find solace with. She’d left him with nothing. Everything was silent. The guests had long gone. His father-in-law had not been able to meet his eyes. Everyone left. He was alone with his pain and his thoughts.
She was going to have a baby. She carried another man’s child…and he’d fallen in love with her…another man’s woman. He’d married her. He’d…Jamal put his face in his hands and raked his hair with his fingers. He picked up a glass from the table and flung it across the room. He picked up a lamp, and sent it the same way. One by one, he smashed every single thing he could find, and still the storm of his fury would not abate.
What the hell was he supposed to do with her?
She’d been in love with another man. She’d been in love with someone else all this time. He slumped in his chair. She’d never loved him at all. She loved someone else.
He had to send her away somewhere. It would be obvious to everyone that the baby wasn’t his because she’d start to show soon. But if she wasn’t here, they could say it was a premature baby, once it came. Just for a moment…the fraction of a second, he thought of letting her go for good, but the sudden vast empty chasm that faced him at the thought, made him backtrack immediately, without really acknowledging why. There was no question of separating her from her child. He’d never do that to her…child…any child.
The only thing to do was to stow her away at the farmhouse maybe, for the next few months. It would be easy enough. After her fiasco of that night, no one would be too keen to make their acquaintance.
If she resisted, all he had to do was threaten to beat her. She seemed to have a fairly stereotypical image of him in her mind. He’d taken full advantage of that so far. He would continue to do so.
A pair of sad grey eyes kept intruding upon his thoughts and his rage and his hate, the brief emotion of love that he’d felt, all coalesced and stormed inside him till he wanted to scratch his eyes out.
The next three months of Mehru’s life were in some ways the best thing that could’ve happened to her. With nothing to do but sit and brood at the farm house, she started to write again. Her short stories appeared in Urdu magazines and newspapers. Maybe she was at the right place at the right time. She was thrilled that her stories were accepted so enthusiastically. She wrote about everything; from the story of the cook, his wife, the milkman, the dhobi, the little girl she saw ever day who dropped and picked up her little brother from a small village school. This nameless little girl, walked an hour every day to drop her brother off, all the way to a village near by that had a school. Mehru watched from her roof top and wrote about all these untold stories that she saw around her.
She’d been shocked at Jamal’s sudden decision to dump her in this godforsaken place. But then she’d thought that it would be easier to live away from him than with him. He intruded upon her consciousness. She hated to think about him but somehow she found that she was thinking about him. Often. Far too often.
She’d tried to convince Bibi to escape. Bibi of course went into hysterics. The scandal! The scandal! Mehru’s only escape was through her writing. She wrote poetry too. These poems ranged from anger, betrayal and desire for vengeance, and included lots about a romantic figure, chivalrous, with an old world honor…a man, Mehru thought, she almost knew.
She was using her mother’s maiden name. Already Mehrunissa Siddiqui was a literary sensation in the world of Urdu literature. People were taking her name with the likes of Meeraji and Ada Jaffrey.
The fictionalized version of her own story that she’d been writing, was coming out too in a few weeks. She’d changed the names of course. It was her grandmother’s story and her mother’s too. Her grandmother’s point of view was clearer to her now. She understood her more after her betrayal of Jamal.
He was on the periphery of her life. He hadn’t once come to see her, which was a good thing because what was she going to tell him when he saw there was no child growing inside her? She’d only recently begun to think of the consequences of her lie. She’d regretted it the moment she’d seen his face. She’d already hurt him, too much. Her heart ached.
Karim Chacha came running. He looked agitated and excited.
‘Yes, Karim Chacha? What’s the matter? Did the chicks get stolen again?’
‘No bittya…there’s a car…’
‘Oh no! Did the cow get hit by a car?’
‘No there’s a car coming this way.’
Drily, Mehru responded, ‘And here we thought we were isolated. Its probably someone who’s lost his way. Who would come here?’
The door opened behind Karim, and Mehru stood face to face with her husband.
She saw his eyes on her middle. His face registered shock. His eyes flew to hers, reflecting concern, and Mehru’s heart warmed. Karim Chacha greeted him with too much enthusiasm, and went out announcing he was going to get tea.
Mehru stared at him, not knowing what to say.
‘Mehrunissa…are you okay?’ he came forward and then stopped. His face pale and his eyes worried. ‘Did you lose the baby? Are you alright? You should’ve called or sent a message if something has happened to your baby.’
She shook her head.
Jamal looked relieved but…confused, ‘If you didn’t lose the baby…then why do you seem…unchanged and that’s obviously not possible if you’re …’
His voice changed and dipped low, ‘Unless you lied, and you got with child after you came home? In which case, the father has to be someone here…’
He looked ill, as he whispered, ‘Please tell me it isn’t…Fahad…’
Jamal looked away, rubbing his face with one hand. Then asked, his voice still harsh, ‘Who is the father of your child?’
Mehru was trapped. There was no way out. She had to tell him the truth.
‘I wasn’t…there isn’t…there was never a baby.’
Jamal stared, a nerve pulsating dangerously at his temple. She watched it in fascination as she confessed. He couldn’t speak. She’d flummoxed him. She explained, feeling sorry for him.
‘I…I lied. I was just angry with my father. I wanted him to suffer. He’d done the same to my mother…’
‘Your mother was his wife.’
‘Whom he abandoned. And me. I wanted him to know what it felt like. I know I succeeded and he did. A daughter’s honour is so precious. But only if it is one’s own daughter. Other people’s daughters are fair game. My mother was somebody’s daughter too and he treated her badly. Very badly. She died alone and rejected.’
Mehru’s voice wobbled and she sat down, clasping her hands. There was silence in the room except for her heavy breathing, trying to control herself.
‘I’m sorry….about your mother.’
She looked at him. He turned his face away, as if he couldn’t bear to look at her. Her mouth trembled but she tried not to cry.
‘So…so this was just another lie.’
‘Yes,’ she said.
Jamal turned away from her and stood looking out of the window, his back to her. He wore a grey suit and his broad shoulders carried the jacket well. Mehru had the sudden desire to rest her head there and cuddle.
She shook herself. What was the matter with her? She was turning into the coquette she was pretending to be.
He sounded tired, when he spoke again. ‘Mehrunissa, for a second if you could not be the pathological liar that you are, and tell me, honestly…’
He still didn’t look at her and Mehru knew what was coming. He seemed to still have hope it seemed, and all this wanting to rest her head on his great big chest, and the sudden leap of her heart when he’d entered, and the way her heart was still thudding uncomfortably made her think that maybe…no, of course not…she wasn’t in love with him, was she?
No. Certainly not. She would never let that happen to her. She was not going to be her mother. She would never be in that position. How could she ever put herself in that position?
In a low voice, he asked, ‘Was there ever a time that you didn’t lie to me?’
Chacha: Uncle sometimes used as respectful epithet to older men even when not related.
Mehru wanted to tell Jamal that yes, some of what she had told him was true. She wanted to tell him that yes, she did indeed have feelings for him. But the fears that she would end up just as discarded as her mother stopped her.
The answer came out as a reflex. She was surprised and just a little regretful after she’d said it.
Jamal turned. His face had lost any trace of concern. It was blank and expressionless again.
‘I came a day earlier to take advantage of your inimitable scheming powers to come up with an answer for Apa and Ajoo Baba. They’re all coming here by evevning. There won’t be any need, thank God. All we have to do is pretend to be happy. They want to spend a week here. I think they’re worried about you.’
‘I don’t see why. They haven’t been concerned for the last three months, why now?’
‘They only recently found out you’ve been here. I told them you’ve been here for two weeks. I’ve done nothing but lie to my family, ever since I married you.’
‘Be careful, my wicked ways might be rubbing off on you.’
He watched her and then said gravely, ‘You don’t even know the repercussions of a divorce do you, Mehrunissa?’
Mehru shrugged and said softly, ‘Bibi makes sure I know.’
Jamal nodded, apparently satisfied. Looking thoughtful he said, ‘We’ll be sharing a room for the next week. Try and stay out of my way.’
‘Same room?’ she squealed.
‘My family will be here. We have to pretend to be happy. What do you expect me to do?’
‘I…no, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.’
She was thinking of her own rogue reactions to him.
Jamal misunderstood, and smiling sardonically he said, ‘Don’t flatter yourself, Mehrunissa. I’m not as susceptible to your many charms as you’d like to think.’
He walked out of the room without another glance at her.
Mehru watched him, her eyes narrowed, breath heavy and chin trembling. He shouldn’t have said that now, should he? He had no idea who he was dealing with. She smiled as she planned her role for the next week, but the flutter in her stomach and the sudden racing of her heart, she assigned to the excitement of another apt vengeance. Nothing else.
Mallo Aunty and Unce Ajoo who had betrayed her, were coming to see her. She was just going to put an act for them like Jamal wanted. She dressed up to the nines, wearing her most flattering clothes and silver jhumkis, silver chandelier like earrings that she really liked. She lined her eyes with kohl, making them dramatic and alive. She went downstairs, where Jamal was already waiting.
Predictably, he didn’t even look at her. She felt insulted. She’d never cared whether men looked at her or not. She’d never even made any effort on her appearance ever. But he’d looked at her before with those bedroom eyes, and unspoken promises, and their velvety brown depths, going dark and stormy.
The subject of her thoughts stood aloof and distant by the door, peering out. What was the matter with her? Why was she thinking like this about him? He had been smitten with her and look at him now, pretending indifference.
‘Apa said they’d be here, around six. It’s six thirty already, so they should be here any…’
He stopped as they both saw the car turn into the gate half a mile away and came up the driveway. Mehru launched into her role with enthusiasm and shrieked with joy,
‘Mallo Chachi! Ajoo Chacha! Fahad, lovely to see you.’
‘Mehru! I’m so glad to see you,’ Mallo hugged her.
Mehru gazed back at her without any sign of disappointment or anger, but Mallo looked slightly unsure. Then she went to Ajoo Chacha but she didn’t hug him like she would’ve before. Ajoo felt it and patted her on the head looking at Jamal, sorrowfully.
Mehru took them inside chatting at the top of her voice, ‘It’s been wonderful here, especially for a newly wedded couple, who’re as happy as Jamal and I are…you know the quiet and the peace.’
She gave Jamal a slow incendiary smile. Jamal’s blood leaped, and he looked away. Circe was up to her old tricks and he was damned if he was going to take this from her again.
‘A woman knows the face of the man she loves, like a sailor knows the open sea. Or so Balzac thought,’ and she fluttered her eyelashes at him.
Dinner that night was lively and they all laughed a great deal. Mehru made it a point to touch Jamal’s arm every few minutes until he gave her a long look with his mouth smiling and his eyes shooting warnings.
‘There is no remedy for love but to love more,’ she said lifting her eyes and giving him a soulful look. Then she added brightly, ‘Thoreau is your favorite isn’t he, Jamal?’ Jamal tried to smile with clenched teeth.
Mallo had been having a great time observing all of Mehru’s antics. Jamal, as always, thought he could fool her with his silence and his ability to hide his hurt. But she’d found out soon enough that there was something terribly wrong, and putting two and two together wasn’t that difficult. Jamal was angry with Mehru, and she was in love with him. There was trouble here but why and what was still a mystery. She decided to wait and watch for a couple of days more before she talked with Jamal about it.
Jamal sat in bed reading, when Mehru came out of the bathroom humming. He continued to read without looking up. Lying down on the bed she rested her elbow on the pillow, and her head on her hand. Then she turned towards him and asked, ‘So, how was I today?’
‘Brilliantly deceptive as always.’
He didn’t bother looking up, even as he replied but he could see her now out of the corner of his eyes. She smelled of jasmine and roses.
‘Yes, I was brilliant even if I say so myself,’ she said happily.
Jamal’s mouth went dry, and his blood was roaring in his ears. Slowly, he closed his book. Methodically he turned, put the light out, and turning his back to her fully, lay down in the dark. His heart was thudding so loud, he was sure she could hear it.
‘Well, good night to you too.’
His temper snapped. He put the light on and he turned towards her, looming over her as he half leaned on his elbow and he growled, ‘You really like playing games don’t you?’
‘Yes, sure I do, especially mentally challenging ones.’
He snorted. ‘You have a tendency to flatter yourself, Mehrunissa. I don’t think you can think beyond the obvious, the material, and the physical.’
She stretched like a cat and purred, giving him an equally feline smile, ‘And are you thinking on the same lines, darling?’
‘You wish,’ his teeth seemed to be stuck together.
She wiggled and stretched, ‘Maybe I do and maybe I don’t. Marriage is an adventure, like going to war, G.K. Chesterton warns us. You’re afraid to admit what is so glaringly obvious.’
His gaze swept over her insultingly, ‘Is that so?’
‘Reading law doesn’t make you an expert on integrity and ethics.’
Stumped, Jamal looked at her, his eyes shooting fire, and he retorted, ‘Stop playing games with me, Mehrunissa. I’ll brook no trespass from you…not ever again.’
He turned, put out the lamp and went to sleep. Or at least he pretended to.
‘Why’s this door locked?’
Mallo asked when she found the study locked.
Mehru answered, ‘Oh…I lost the key long ago.’
‘Tell Karim to get a locksmith and open it, or change the lock.’
‘I’ll do that next week.’
Mehru didn’t want anyone to go in and discover her secret writing. So she was rather unpleasantly surprised at dinner.
Fahad said, ‘Ami, you know that writer you’re always raving about? I think she’s getting a new novel out soon.’
‘Really? How do you know?’ Mallo sounded excited.
Smiling Fahad said, ‘I read it somewhere, in a magazine or something.’
‘Oh, I’m so excited. Mehru there’s this new writer and she’s become really famous all of a sudden, quite a literary star and guess what her name is…Mehrunissa!’
Mehru nearly choked on her food. Spluttering she managed to say, ‘Oh…oh, how nice. So you…you’ve read her work?’
‘Yes. I love it. I’ve read everything she’s written so far. I would love to read the novel.’
For a second Mehru had the urge to tell her to not read the novel, just in case Mallo saw the similarities between the grandmother in the novel and her own, but then she thought, who’s going to associate that book with me? They don’t know me at all. She let it go and taking a deep breath changed the subject.
Jamal, however, was watching her curiously. She’d gone pale when his sister said the writer’s name. Now, why would such a small coincidence bother her? Something nagged at the back of his mind but he couldn’t quite catch it. But he had the feeling that Mehru was hiding something.
Glossary of terms:
Chachi: paternal uncle’s wife
Chacha: paternal uncle
Jhumkis: chandelier earrings
Kohl: black eye-liner
Jamal wanted his family gone so that he could get away from Mehru. He didn’t know if he could get through another night with her in the same room as him. He was beginning to forget what she’d done. His hormones, he decided, were taking over.
His sister was saying something and he hadn’t heard a word.
‘…don’t understand why? She obviously loves you. I’ve seen the way she looks at you, so what’s the problem?’
‘Jamal, pay attention! Mehru, who else?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What’s wrong with you? You look dazed.’
Jamal’s anger spiked. ‘I do not look, or feel dazed. And she’s not in love with me. She’s a fraud. And…’
He stopped. He was shocked that he’d given the game away. He must be more affected than he’d realized.
Mallo looked at him quietly. ‘Tell me.’
Confused and angry and beginning to understand his own vulnerability to Mehru, and panicking at the realization, he found himself telling Mallo everything. When he was done, he felt worse because he’d replayed it all in his mind, and realized again, how well she’d manipulated him. She’d never even said anything much, just hinted and demurred and let him do all the hard work of digging his own grave.
‘She’s in love with you. I’m a woman, I can tell these things.’
Jamal looked at his sister and said very quietly, ‘She can fool anyone. I’ll never forgive her for what she did to me.’
‘Jamal, please be reasonable. She’s…’
‘Incorrigible and probably I’m the only man around apart from Karim, so the signals she’s giving are not about love I’m sure…’
‘Shut up.’ His sister declared furiously. ‘Is this what I’ve taught you? She’s your wife.’
He shrugged, ‘Ami Begum knows her better than all of us put together.’
Mallo looked at her brother, who was like a son to her and said softly, ‘Jamal…don’t believe everything Mehru tells you…believe what you see. She’s been hurt a lot. Her mother died an outcast. Her father abandoned her and her mother. She bore all of this alone, completely alone. And the only family she had, disowned her and reviled her. Do you blame her for wanting to hurt them back?’
‘You’re not too popular with her either in case you haven’t noticed.’
‘I have. She feels we betrayed her that day when we didn’t rescue her from you, and she’s right there too. We believed you, not her…and she was the one telling the truth, apparently.’
‘What else could I have done under the circumstances?’
‘What’s done is done. But Jamal, open your eyes now and see what’s before you. She’s…she’s in love with you.’
‘That’s just rubbish, Apa. I don’t think she’s capable of that emotion.’
‘At the end of the day, one has to let one’s children make their own mistakes but it’s so hard. I don’t want to see you get hurt and I don’t want to see you hurt Mehru, and you’re doing both.’
Jamal brooded over what she’d said, and his own growing chthonic desires for the woman he’d married so recklessly.
‘Why’s this door locked?’
Jamal rattled the door knob and asked Karim, who shrugged and loped off. But Mallo replied, ‘I asked Mehru and she said she’d lost the key, a few weeks ago.’
‘Really? That’s interesting.’
It was open the day he’d come. This was the room she’d been in that first day he’d come. Why would she lie to Mallo about it? Was she hiding something here? It was like a study he remembered, there’d been books and a writing table, papers…a lot of papers, with neat script.
‘Apa, why don’t you ask Mehrunissa to take you out to see the neighbourhood today?’
‘Why do you keep calling her Mehrunissa so pompously? You used to call her Mehru like everyone else.’
‘I also used to think she was someone she isn’t. I can’t call her that anymore. She isn’t that person for me…not anymore.’
‘I have no desire to go out in this heat.’
‘It’s September. It isn’t that hot. Please Apa, I want her out of the house. It’s important. I just need about half an hour.’
‘Why, what’s going on?’
‘I’ll tell you if there’s anything to tell.’
So when Mehru came downstairs that day, Mallo was ready to go gallivanting she had to go along with her unenthusiastically. As soon as they’d left Jamal got Karim to get the clutch of spare keys, and he had the door open in ten minutes. Karim was sworn to secrecy on pain of losing his job. Jamal knew now how to keep his mouth shut thanks to Mehru.
Jamal rifled through her desk and found pages and pages of manuscripts and stories in her neat script…all in Urdu. He found the letters to the publishers too. He found her English poetry and nearly lost himself in it. Who was this man she kept writing about? It was almost like hero worship or like love. He sat mesmerized, and he read bits here and there until he barely had time to lock up behind him at the sound of the car in the drive way.
He wasn’t sure what he’d expected. But certainly not this…
Was there anything about her that was what it should be? It seemed to Jamal that ever since she’d come in his life, he’d had one thing after another bludgeoning him on the head, making him feel stunned and dizzy, intoxicated…
Every night for the next three, Jamal stole into the study to read Mehru’s work. He marvelled at its depth, its craft and the beauty of her words. She wrote with such sensitivity. Who was she? How many faces did she have? Which one was really hers…or were they all her? Or none? Who was this man she seemed to love so deeply?
He wanted her to be the woman her writing portrayed she was and the one he’d known she was almost instinctively. He wanted her to be his. But he was sceptical. He’d hardened himself against her so that when she came in front of him, her corporeal form had nothing to do with this invisible woman he’d been spending the last three nights with, the woman who wrote those beautiful things he read every night. That woman he could love, and had loved, still did, he’d realized. But that woman was ephemeral, elusive, and refused to take physical form, especially that of this Mehrunissa, who’d so carelessly and heartlessly manipulated him.
Bibi couldn’t see Mehru so sad. She loved Jamal and he loved her and yet the two were being so very childish. She put the sewing away and opened her paan-daan, looking vexed.
What was she supposed to do? She popped the beetle leaf into her mouth and was chewing it with concentration when Mallo walked in.
Bibi nodded, still stewing over Mehru and Jamal.
‘What are you so worried about?’
Bibi chewed some more. Mallo helped herself to some beetle-leaf and having a good idea that their worries were probably of a similar nature, she asked, ‘So, how long have you been here, really?’
Bibi’ s jaw slackened. She stared. Her eyes wary, calculating. Mallo smiled.
‘Hmm. So you know?’ asked Bibi.
‘We’re mothers. So what if we didn’t give birth to them?’ Mallo asked, putting the paan in her mouth with a flourish.
‘They’re foolish children.’
‘Agreed,’ mumbled Mallo.
‘Immature, stubborn, foolish children.’
‘They think they know everything because they learnt to read and write.’
‘As if experience counts for nothing.’
Bibi glared at Mallo.
‘Are you going to sit here agreeing with me or are you going to do something about it?’
‘Tell me what to do, Bibi?’
Bibi rolled her beetle-leaf in her mouth and tucking it between her left cheek and her teeth, she said, ‘She writes.’
Mallo nodded, looking encouraging.
Bibi’s ears seemed to be steaming when she added, ‘That novel you love so much? She wrote it.’
Mallo stared. Bibi rolled the paan back into place and said, ‘Take it to Ami Begum. Read it to her. Show her who our Mehru really is, Mallo.’
Mallo had tears in her eyes.
‘It’s her? She wrote that?’
Bibi nodded and pressed Mallo’s hand in comfort.
‘I should have known. Bibi, I should have realized.’
‘Now you have, Mallo. We have to help our children. Show it to her father too.’
The two women sat late into the evening, planning and chatting. Mallo left with her husband the next day. Bibi was in the best of moods. Mehru was not. Jamal hadn’t left with his parents. Mehru wasn’t sure quite what to make of that.
‘Why isn’t he leaving?’ she asked Bibi.
‘It’s his house, little dove.’
‘It’s our house. He sent us here. He lives in the city.’
‘Then why are you whispering?’
‘Go ask him yourself, if you are so troubled by it.’
‘Why should I?’ Mehru said with a breezy shrug. Then rounding on Bibi she said, ‘you ask him.’
‘What you want to ask, only you can ask.’
Mehru spluttered, ‘What? I don’t know what…what?’
‘Mehru…my darling child. Would it be so bad to tell him that you love him?’
Mehru’s jaw dropped opened.
‘He’s your husband. You’re supposed to love him. It’s perfectly natural and acceptable. It’s allowed.’
‘Bibi?’ Mehru gasped again.
‘Listen, my love. He loves you too. But he’s a man. They’re stubborn. They’re different. You have to make the first move. Don’t be so foolish. You did him wrong anyway. You must make it up to him.’
Mehru opened here mouth and Bibi said quickly, holding up her hand, ‘Uh-uh! No more Bibi-Bibi. Go. Talk to him. He is your husband, Mehrunissa and he loves you.’
With a flourish Bibi was off and away leaving Mehru in her wake.
Glossary of terms:
Apa: older sister
Paan-daan: usually a silver box with a lid to carry beetle leaves and its condiments that ladies used in that era.
Mehru sat down at her writing table, her emotions churning inside her. Jamal…the man she’d married for revenge; the man she’d been goading; the man she’d thought she was using; the man, she was in love with apparently…had been in love with, even when she’d been pretending, she realized. Bibi was right.
Mehru gave a half-smile. When was she ever not?
She stared at the blank paper before her for a long time and then she began to write. Her bangles tinkled. The nib of her pen scratched on the thick paper. The ink glistened and dried in thick strokes as she inscribed her emotions in words. She wrote till her arm ached and her hand stiffened. When she rose from her desk she felt both relieved and infinitely more alone than ever before.
Jamal would follow his family. He had stayed only to make sure that they didn’t suspect the state of affairs between the two of them. Would he want her to stay on here still, even though now he knew there was no baby? If he didn’t, would anything change between them even after he read this letter?
Mehru’s heart skittered. What if he was unable to ever forget what she’d done? He’d made that very clear earlier. Then how was she ever going to make him believe that she was in love with him? What if all her letters were insufficient?
Mehru put her head down on her arms and wept.
She was woken up by the coughing growling noise of an engine starting. She awoke with the thought of impending doom. Jamal was leaving. She jumped out of the chair and out of the main door…
She was too late. She stood on the wide veranda that led to the sweeping steps of the entrance, and saw the tail-lights of the car vanish in the thinning fog of early morning as he turned, and the chowkidar closed the gates behind his vanishing car.
Mehru couldn’t stop the shuddering cold sigh that escaped from the depths of her being, nor the tears that flowed. He’d left. He hadn’t even said goodbye. She sobbed uncontrollably, making small choked sounds that wrenched her body and stood staring towards the wrought iron gate that had shut out all her newly found dreams.
‘I don’t think anyone can appreciate your drama all the over here.’
She whirled around and…there he was, skimming the newspaper he held in his hands and without looking up he added, ‘Unless now you’ve included superannuated domestic help as your audiences.’
He looked up with a faintly irritated expression that changed to concern when he saw her face.
‘Why are you…?’
‘You didn’t leave!’
They spoke simultaneously. He watched her for a moment, and his velvety eyes held the glimmerings of a smile and his voice was soft when he said, ‘You’re crying because you thought I’d left?’
Mehru concentrated on the marble floor and didn’t say anything out of sheer embarrassment. He sounded distant when he spoke.
‘You’re safe here. Bibi’s here.’
Slowly she raised those sleepy grey eyes to his, ‘I wasn’t scared.’
Shooting an exasperated look she went indoors.
Jamal stood staring after her. Did she mean she’d been crying because she thought he’d left? He stood in the September morning now rapidly getting warmer, trying to figure out what this strange new beat was in his heart that he was listening to. It was faint but it was there, and still listening to the sweet music he followed her inside…
…And was accosted by Bibi. She launched into a long tirade and he couldn’t make head or tail of the story which she was trying to tell.
‘Jamal Mian, so sorry about this…really I am. If Gulaabo wasn’t in trouble, I’d never go but I just ignore her need. Beta, I have to go it’s an emergency…hai, hai, I’m really sorry.’
Jamal still hadn’t found his voice when Mehru said, ‘What’s going on, Bibi?’
Bibi turned towards her and started all over again. Mehru listened with an understanding smile on her face, and then she looked at him over their shoulders and gave him a strange look that he didn’t quite decipher.
Mehru was thinking fast. Bibi obviously had this planned out. She wanted to give her time with Jamal. If Bibi wasn’t here Jamal couldn’t go.
‘Really Bibi, that’s not a problem at all. You should go. We’ll manage, I’m sure.’
Bibi thanked her profusely and were out of the door as fast her legs could carry her. Karim chacha announced, ‘Breakfast is ready.’
They ate in companionable silence. Despite himself Jamal found that he couldn’t help talking to her and looking at her and he liked looking at her a great deal. The ache in his heart was his constant companion–had been ever since that fateful evening, when all his dreams had been so ruthlessly and deliberately shattered by this woman he loved. And he’d loved almost naively. Yet, here he was again watching and wanting with that same intensity. Only now there was a taint of darkness to the wanting. He finished his tea quickly to get out of the range of this embodiment of all temptation.
Mehru was toying with her food. He wouldn’t go now that Bibi had left. He couldn’t leave her on her own without a chaperone. She had to tell him how she felt. But how?
‘What are you plans for the day?’ she asked as he put his teacup down and prepared to leave.
‘I’m not sure.’
Smiling vaguely at her he got up. She followed.
‘Yes?’ He half-turned and waited.
‘I…I have a confession.’
He didn’t respond, just watched and waited.
‘I…wanted to say…I wanted to tell you something.’
She got up and came towards him. He stood motionless. Mehru realized that she’d have to put her pride on the line and give him all because he wouldn’t accept anything less.
‘Can we sit down?’
Her heart fluttered.
‘Jamal…I wanted to say, I wanted to tell you that…don’t go. Stay here with me for a while?’
‘Why?’ he asked.
Mehru wrung her hands
‘I know you don’t trust me after what happened but you have to believe in us again.’
Slowly, she raised her eyes to his and held her breath. ‘You have to believe,’ she insisted.
He looked at her with that same blank expression. It nearly broke her heart to see him look at her like that.
‘I wish I could…but I can’t, Mehrunissa. I don’t think I’ll ever truly believe you or in you.’
‘How can you say that?’
‘You lied to me.’
His voice was dark with unarticulated emotion.
Mehru whispered, ‘I never said…anything to make you believe that I…that I…’
‘That’s true. But you made me believe it, even though you knew it wasn’t true. You were very clever. You made me believe it.’
She looked at him with despair. He was unmoved.
‘What do you want me to say, Jamal? You know I’m sorry about what happened.’
‘So am I.’
They stared at each other for some time, both of them hurting and afraid to get even more so.
At last she said, ‘Is this how it’s going to be? For the rest of our lives?’
A sob escaped Mehru.
‘Don’t do this Jamal. You deserve better. You should marry someone you can love. You should…’
‘So that’s what this is all about then?’ he shot at her. His eyes shot fire. ‘You want me to let you go? Are you so naïve, you don’t know what will happen to you as a divorced woman? Just because we have the British ruling over us, doesn’t make us goras Mehrunissa. You’ll be shunned. No one will entertain you in their home. You will be a pariah. Your own family won’t support you.’
‘None of it will be new to me, Jamal.’
She knocked the wind out of his sails with that quiet sentence. They stood staring at each other. Mehru saw the doubt in his eyes. He’d never trust her. He felt sorry for her maybe.
‘I’m sorry I hurt you but I didn’t think I’d be able to hurt you all that much. I didn’t realize, honest. At the time, I just wanted to get even with my grandmother.’
‘Well, you succeeded in doing both, whether you wanted or not.’
Mehru opened her mouth to say something but Jamal shook his head.
‘Mehru…Mehrunissa, I cannot. I have to stay here till Bibi returns and I don’t know what to think. You’re so unpredictable. I never know who you’ll turn into next time I look at you.’
‘I’m not all that bad.’
‘Really? From the sad abandoned daughter to damsel in distress, to vengeful heartless woman, to pregnant with another man’s child…’
‘I think I get the picture,’ she said in a wobbly voice.
‘Is this funny? You think this is funny?’
She couldn’t hold the laughter in and it bubbled out. She gasped, ‘I’m sorry.’
But she couldn’t stop the laughter. Jamal shook his head with a smile on his face and then he gave a reluctant little laugh, as he said, ‘Well, I suppose it is a little. And the outrageous songs you sang without batting an eyelid…my poor brother in law’s been scarred for life.’
And then they were both laughing.
‘That song,’ Jamal said catching his breath.
‘Where did you learn it? Wait. I don’t want to know.’
At Mehru’s eruption of another bout of mirth, he added with mock gravity, ‘I mean it.’
‘I promise I won’t tell.’
‘I’ll never forget that dinner you arranged…’
Gradually as their laughter faded, she caught Jamal looking at her with such longing, Mehru felt her heart flutter.
He searched her face as he confessed, ‘I want nothing more than to believe in us but there’s a barrier I cannot cross.’
‘I’ll cross it this time, Jamal. I trust you. I’ll put my faith in you this time. You don’t have to say anything. I can wait for you.’
He stared into her eyes and smiling sadly he said, ‘I’m sorry, Mehru. I cannot trust myself with you. I don’t recognize myself with you. You make me into this weak unprincipled man I don’t like and I don’t want to be. Just…just know that you are my wife and I am your husband and it is a curse we both must endure.’
He turned on his heels and left the room. Mehru stood trying not to notice the flood of tears that erupted in quiet mutiny.
Glossary of terms
Chowkidaar: Gate keeper
Hai, hai: an exclamation of distress
Chacha: honorary title for older man
After leaving Mehru and Jamal, Bibi went straight to Ami Begum’s house.
Gulaabo was in the kitchen as usual and Bibi greeted her with a hug and whispers, ‘He’s there with her. Pray that all goes according to plan. I gave Mallo begum Mehru’s novel last time. I think her father knows now. But her grandmother?’
‘Hai, Bibi. It’s all up to you and Mallo now. I was taking tea out.’
‘I’ll come with you. You ask me to read something for entertainment. Tell Mallo begum as well.’
Gulaabo nodded with a smile and carried the tea tray out first leaving Bibi to follow with the other tray.
As usual, the ladies were all sitting outside enjoying the evening. The floors had been sprinkled with water all around. The lawn too had been newly watered. The warm breeze was cool by the time it reached the veranda and the ladies. The air still smelled warm and scented with the jasmine flower.
When Bibi came forward, Mallo greeted her with enthusiasm.
‘Salaam, Bibi. How wonderful that you came at my invitation. We are so happy to see you.’
She got up and hugged Bibi. Over her shoulder, Bibi watched Ami Begum’s reaction. She didn’t look pleased.
‘Ask me to read from the novel, Mallo begum’, Bibi whispered.
‘Ami Begum, I invited Bibi today because I wanted to share with you that beautiful story I talked to you about. I asked Bibi to read it to us. I hope you don’t mind?’
Ami Begum raised her cold eyes to Bibi and said with a smile, as frosty as her eyes.
‘Of course I don’t. I hear courtesans are taught the art of reading and recitation as well as singing. I’m sure our guest will entertain us suitably.’
Bibi bristled at the reminder of her old life but she smiled and said, ‘Yes, Begum Sahiba, you are absolutely right and I will try my best.’
Bibi opened the book and read:
This story may have begun ages ago, but it became mine with my grandmother. My father called her Ami begum, and later I found out that so did everyone else. My mother used to talk about her with longing and fear and for years I didn’t understand why. When I understood why I hadn’t seen her and why my father, who obviously loved his mother beyond reason, didn’t live with us. I understood my mother’s sadness and that understanding became my curse because that day I lost my father and the grandmother had never seen.
Since then I have met her. I have seen her and lived with her too, though, neither one of us wanted that. She isn’t what I had expected her to be. She is a proud woman. A graceful matriarch. A woman of courage.
Yet, she is also the woman I blame for my mother’s death.
Yes, gentle reader, my mother died alone and helpless, still waiting for her husband to come and claim her and their daughter. She died of a broken heart. My grandmother, is a woman of grace and courage, yes. She is also a murderer.
The word rang out in the silence of the evening. The birds had not yet begun their songs. Bibi had been so engrossed in the reading she’d forgotten her audience. Now she looked up to behold Ami Begum’s pale face.
‘What is this? Who wrote this? Is this a joke?’ she asked.
‘This is a novel, Ami Begum,’ said Mallo. ‘It’s by a new writer. I’ve read it and I liked it very much and I thought you would too.’
‘Shall I continue?’ asked Bibi.
Everyone looked at Ami Begum. She stared at something far away, not answering for a bit. Then she looked up and said decisively, ‘Yes, Bibi. Please do.’
It was time, Mehru thought.
She had to give her first and only love letter to her husband and get it over with. It was eating at her. It was lying in the drawer mocking her. Bibi had been gone two days now. Two days Jamal had stayed. They had hardly spoken. He watched her though. When he thought she wasn’t looking, he watched. She liked that.
Even though he’d said their marriage was a curse. Even though he’d said that he didn’t like who he became with her. Even then. Her heart sank. It was stupid. Stupid. How could she tell him she loved him when he thought so lowly of her?
‘Any possibility of getting some food around here? It’s two o’ clock.’
‘Kareem chacha is warming it up.’
Under her breath she complained, ‘Food! As if there’s nothing else in life.’
‘What was that?’ Jamal asked politely.
She looked up at him, utterly disgusted. ‘Is there anything else that you think about, except food? Especially at a time like this?’
‘At a time like this? Is this a special time?’
‘Yes. We have never been this alone before. Together.’
‘Hmm. What are the accepted thoughts at a time like this? When we are alone…together?’
‘You’re mocking me.’
‘Do you blame me?’
She couldn’t help smiling and teased him back, ‘Well, there’s poetry…’
‘Not going to happen.’
‘How about a discourse on my beauty?’ she laughed.
Her laughter vanished and she gasped, ‘Really?’
Laughing, he said, ‘Where to begin? Shall I tell you how beautiful your eyes are…like stormy seas? There’s a sadness in them that pulls at the heart…’
She stared into his eyes and decided to give him the letter.
‘Wait here,’ she said and rushed into her study. Jamal looked surprised but didn’t move.
‘What’s this?’ He asked taking it from her, his eyes searching her face.
‘It’s just…something I wanted to say to you. Read it please? I’ll be in my study, waiting for your answer.’
So saying Mehru vanished into her study. And waited. What would he say? What would he do? Would he be happy? Would he care? What if she had already killed their love? She started cleaning her desk, just to have something to do. Then she rearranged her books. Then she sat down at the desk and tried to read but her eyes kept wandering to the door. She gave up the pretence and waited with her eyes on the door. It had been an hour already. So she decided to be patient. Her heart had shrunk to the size of a peanut though.
At last the door opened. Her heart lifted. Her breath hitched.
Jamal walked in.
He wouldn’t meet her eyes. Mehru’s heart shrank again. He sat down on a chair and stole a glance at her.
‘Mehru…do you mean it this time?’
She opened her mouth and nothing came out. She’d lost her tongue. That was the moment that she chose to lose her voice. She nodded.
‘How can I trust you?’ he asked. He got up and paced the small study. She’d never realized how small it was before.
‘I…it’s impossible for me to do that and yet…I want so much to believe you.’
Mehru’s eyes swam and a smile broke on her lips at his words.
‘I mean it. I mean every word of it,’ she whispered shakily.
Jamal looked back, eyes tortured, face grim. He sat down again, still looking at her.
‘Give me time?’
She nodded and let her tears drop.
‘Please,’ she said, ‘don’t say anything. I know after what happened, it’s difficult for you. I just can’t help crying. I mean to say that it’s only natural so just ignore it. Don’t worry about it.’
He looked into her face riveted.
‘I understand. I really do,’ she said smiling through her tears.
‘You’re so beautiful.’
It should have made her happy. Yet her heart dipped and her smile dried up. Jamal didn’t sound passionate, merely observant. Something inside Mehru stirred uncomfortably. Was he ever going to forgive her for what she’d done to him? The thought made her say his name in panic, as if to block out the darkness that was beginning to eclipse her tiny sun.
‘Hmmm?’ he asked, still watching her almost impassively.
What could she say? Love me back? Don’t hurt me back? What could she say after all that had happened between them? She had even written him a love letter but even that was not enough.
‘Nothing,’ she said because she knew she was defeated. There was nothing more to say. It was up to him now.
He gave her an odd look then and said, ‘I don’t want any more secrets between us, Mehru. I don’t want to be blind-sided with anything so if there’s anything you want to tell me about your life…anything at all?’
Mehru squirmed. It was too early for her to tell him about her writing. She didn’t want to tell him until she was sure that he could love her too. After all it was all of her, in her writing, no buffers and no masks. If she were to tell him about her writing, it would be another way to declare her love. She felt squeamish. Even after reading her avowals, her deep dark secrets, her weaknesses and her confessions, he still didn’t believe her. He still couldn’t forgive her. If she told him even that one small secret that she had left and he rejected her still, how would she bear that?
She had a strange sense of foreboding.
‘I’ve already laid my heart bare to you. What else could there be?’
Jamal’s expression changed. It became shuttered, stony and he said, ‘So that’s how it’s going to be? Even now?’
Glossary of words:
Chacha: suffix denoting respect for elder man
Mehru woke up beside Jamal the next morning. She blinked when she saw him lying beside her. Her heart skipped a beat. She was in love with her husband. She smiled. He must love her too. After last night, she had no doubt about that.
‘Good morning,’ said a sleepy Jamal.
‘Subh b’khair,’ she replied. ‘I’ll go arrange for breakfast.’
She got up and vanished into the bathroom. She got dressed, taking extra care with her appearance. Then she went downstairs, still smiling, humming to herself. Telling the cook to get tea and breakfast ready, she went to her study.
She was happy. Jamal hadn’t said he loved her, but so what? He’d shown her he did. When she came out of the study after writing a few quick lines, he was already there.
‘What were you doing in there?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ she smiled back.
Jamal gave her an inscrutable look and said, ‘You don’t have to lie anymore. I know already,’ said Jamal.
Confused, Mehru asked, ‘What do you mean?’
Smiling, Jamal said, ‘I know that if Ami Begum were to read that novel you’ve written, she’d change her mind about you. You’re very like her.’
For a moment everything was the same. She was happy, with her doubts and fears at the back of her mind, still thinking that he hadn’t quite said that he loved her…and then as his words registered. She stiffened. She hadn’t told him about her writing.
‘What novel? What do you mean?’
‘The novel you’ve just got published.’
He said it casually as if it was common knowledge.
She asked faintly, ‘What do you know about…?’
With a chuckle, he said, ‘Everything. I know your secret. I’ve known for a few days now.’
A dark shadow was beginning to drown the joy in her heart.
‘How? What do you mean?’ She sounded strange even to herself. This was her secret. This was what she had been afraid of, that he’d know and still not respond to her love. It was already done.
Jamal’s smile faltered and his voice changed too. It was almost cool, ‘That day when Mallo Apa spoke about the new writer she admired, you became very agitated. There were others clues. So I did a bit of investigating. I put two and two together. I got the spare keys to your study and…’
She pulled away from him, horrified, ‘You spied on me?’
Jamal didn’t look at all embarrassed. His face closed up though, became a mask of indifference and he answered with a shrug, ‘I did what I had to. I couldn’t trust you…and when I started reading, I was interested. Your writing is exceptional.’
Mehru stared at him in silence.
He stared back at her, and then he said very stiffly, ‘Mehru, I’m not going to apologize for what I did and what I believed then—and still do—was my right because of what you did to me.’
‘How can you say that? You violated my privacy…you violated my very being.’
Jamal moved away from her then and said with barely controlled anger, ‘You’re one to talk of violations. I didn’t mislead you in any way. I didn’t force you to choose between what you believed to be right and me…and then abandon you to your misery because I had a thirst for vengeance. That was you. You did that.’
She was trembling now. She could feel her world crumbling around her. She whispered in a shocked small voice, ‘Choose between what is right and…me? I’m…wrong?’
Jamal frowned and said with a visible effort at control, ‘You know very well what I meant. I’d agreed that I’d marry Sania, and then you came and you…’
‘Ruined it for you? I usurped Sania’s place?’
Jamal looked at her then and said softly, ‘Mehru, our truce is too fragile for this kind of argument. I don’t think my feelings over the matter…of us…are any secret. It’s not easy for me to forgive what you did to me but I’m trying.’
Could he hear himself? He was so self-righteous…as if he was still the wronged party. Mehru felt the fiery licks of betrayal singe her heart. She felt exposed. Was this what he’d felt like? It was horrible. He’d read her most private thoughts and yet he hadn’t forgiven her. She’d written everything, her feelings, her fears…and he’d still not forgiven her…not even after reading all of that? This was her worst nightmare. He knew everything; the way she’d written about him as if he was some hero. She’d been seeking his forgiveness and all the while he’d been spying on her and doing everything that his code said he never could. He was a hypocrite. This was not the man she’d fallen in love with.
Her brand new love, all shiny and new, felt tainted and dirty to her now.
Tentatively, Jamal came closer, ‘Mehru…’
She shook her head. He stopped in his tracks.
Her pain was far too much for tears. She was dry-eyed. This man, who’d taken everything she had, as if it was right to do so, as if he was taking something that belonged to him, would he now after their sacred bonding tell her that he loved her too? For her, it had been something sacred. It was time to find out what it was for him. She wanted to know what she was to him. It was time for the final curtain call.
Looking at him with a calm resignation, she said, ‘Jamal…I told you I love you.’
She was watching him. He knew she’d said it on purpose to test him. But he couldn’t say it. Not yet…he couldn’t say it and she was trying to force him after having said she wouldn’t. She had no business taking this high moral ground with him after what she’d done. He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t going to be pushed into it. He still couldn’t trust her. She had not told him about her writing herself. Not even now. He’d had to confront her. He wasn’t angry any more, just cautious. That wasn’t wrong. She couldn’t do this to him.
Quietly he warned, ‘Mehru, don’t.’
She gave a mirthless laugh. ‘Even now? Even after all this…if you can’t say it even now, then you don’t love me. Maybe you never did.’
‘That is a lie,’ he roared. ‘I loved you. I loved you so much I gave up everything I’d held on to all my life. I defied my family for you. I gave up my home for you…and you’d never loved me. It was you who lied. You are still lying.’
‘You’re right. It was me who lied then. Who’s been lying ever since? You don’t love me anymore, do you? I’m not lying.’
She sounded detached. She felt as if she’d dreamed it all. Their laughter and their lovemaking was all a mirage that she’d dreamed up for herself. This was reality. This, his inability to forgive and therefore love, was true.
‘I told you…I need time.’
She nodded and said, ‘Yes.’ Her voice sounded dull when she said, ‘Maybe you should go now and take the time you need.’
He raised his eyebrow and replied coolly, ‘I beg your pardon?’
He wasn’t the romantic upright hero, the wronged noble husband anymore. He was a two faced liar with double standards. He’d violated her in every way.
‘You’re asking me to leave now? After declaring your love for me…again? After all that just happened between us? Am I a joke to you? Who do you think I am? What do you take me for? You can’t throw me out of my own house.’
Mehru got up and faced Jamal. She looked pale and gaunt. There were already shadows under her eyes.
‘I hurt you, I know…and you’re still holding on to a grudge while you breached my most private thoughts, a secret that was mine to keep or declare. While you were violating my privacy, did you think of forgiving me? Did you think of it while you were in bed with me?’
Jamal narrowed his eyes at her but didn’t speak. As she looked at him she realized that she didn’t really know him.
‘Be careful, Mehru. You’re treading on thin ice.’
Mehru laughed. She had tears in her eyes. She felt weak and exhausted.
‘You’re not the man I thought you were. Maybe, neither one of us is what we expected to find. We made a mistake. You were right. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.’
Glossary of terms:
Subh b’khair: good morning
Apa: older sister
Jamal’s feelings were all in a jumble. He wasn’t sure what he was going through exactly. He’d never felt like this before. His heart raced and then suddenly sank. He felt angry and then guilty. She wasn’t right…she was the one who’d pushed him to it.
‘You’re over-reacting, Mehru. Don’t do this again…don’t ruin what we’ve barely got.’
‘Jamal, you said yourself so many times that it won’t be easy for you to forget or forgive. I don’t think you’ll ever be rid of your anger. You’ll never forget. Maybe, I won’t either.’
How could she compare what he’d done to how she’d behaved? She was being unreasonable. His temper flared again. He didn’t want to examine that uncomfortable feeling that was right in its wake. He had done nothing wrong.
‘Don’t tell me what I felt or feel now, Mehru. Or what I will or will not do. You’re such a selfish, stubborn girl. I wish I’d never laid eyes on you.’
‘The feeling’s mutual,’ she snapped back.
‘You’re making a mistake, Mehru. I’m not going to grovel at your feet, and I’m not going to pine away after you. That romantic hero you think I am is an illusion you’ve created for yourself. It isn’t me.’
‘Then don’t expect me to come begging any time soon.’
He stood still for a moment watching her, waiting for her to say something that would save their relationship, so fragile and already so precious. She didn’t, and so he had no option but to turn around and leave the room. His heart thudding uncomfortably, Jamal made his way out with the nagging feeling that he was leaving something of himself behind.
Mehru sank back into her chair and waited for the sound of the car engine gunning. When it came, and then droned away into nothing, she let herself cry her heart out.
Ami Begum was sitting in her room with Farooq, when Jamal walked in. She stared at him, speechless. He came and sat down beside her.
‘The last time you punished me, you said I was to read to you for an hour a day. Farooq Chacha, I’m so glad you’re here too. This is a story you’ll need to hear too.’
Without waiting for a response, Jamal opened the book in his hand and began to read…
Even as I nursed my anger, I hoped to find love from the woman my father had loved all his life. He was doomed to love women, my father, and he would betray each one, despite his good intentions…
He read on slowly, even as he heard the occasional sniff from Ami Begum. When the hour had passed, he got up to leave.
‘Who wrote this?’ asked Farooq Chacha.
‘I think you know that already.’
‘That cannot be. She couldn’t have written this. You must be mistaken.’
‘Then why do you look so worried Farooq Chacha?’
Farooq Chacha looked like a statue. His face was pale. Jamal turned to leave.
‘Continue reading, I want to hear more,’ said Ami Begum.
Jamal smiled but didn’t let her see it. Instead, he said, ‘An hour a day of penance, Ami Begum.’
Jamal looked at her keenly, ‘Yes?’
He didn’t reply and took his leave.
For the next one week he came every day to read to them both. Mehru’s father and grandmother. Jamal’s only recourse was to make things right between Mehru and her father. Ami Begum had to accept her as her grand-daughter. He felt responsible for his wife. That was all. He hadn’t done anything wrong. It wasn’t such a big deal as she was making it out to be after what she’d done. He wasn’t going to go to her. Not after all this. It might kill him slowly, this pain in his heart and the constant ache for her he’d been living with for the past two weeks, but he wasn’t going to go back to her. She’d pushed him away twice now.
Jamal walked out and back to his lonely house with a bleeding heart and his pride.
Ami Begum felt the tears sting and she let herself cry for the first time since in years. Farooq sat there like a statue. She cried for her son, for what she’d done to his child and him. For a week now she had thought of nothing else.
‘Ami Begum, please don’t cry. She’s right. I’m the one who failed all of you. I failed you when I married without your consent. I failed Lispeth when I didn’t stand up for her. I have failed Mehru since the day she was born. It’s all on me.’
‘I shouldn’t have been so harsh…it was unforgivable. She’s right. It is unforgivable.’
‘I am the one who should be ashamed, Ami Begum. It is all my fault. I am a failure.’
Ami Begum was divided. The regret, the desire to know her grand-daughter and to seek redemption was too strong to ignore. The guilt and shame had grown. Her grand-daughter was someone to be proud of and she realized that she was…very much so.
‘I want to see my grand-daughter, Farooq.’
Her son smiled and said, ‘I want to see my daughter too, Ami Begum. I could bring her to you. I have to make up to her for so much.’
His face changed and he added, ‘However, I must warn you. I believe she and Jamal are having problems. Mallo Begum is concerned about them.’
His mother looked at him sharply.
‘What happened between them?’
‘I’m not sure I understand myself. Bibi is cagey but she told me ‘a few hard truths’ according to her. It’s something to do with Mehru feeling…let down. She’s been…er…lying about a lot of things.’
He told her everything Bibi had told him. His mother stared at him for a long time. Neither of them spoke about it though.
‘I want to see Mehru. Today. This has gone on long enough. It’s time to make up for old wrongs, and some new ones too.’
Lispeth, my mother was half-Irish. She used to tell me that as a young girl, she dreamed of a stranger, a poet, and he sang to her in his deep voice of love, but it was a language she didn’t understand, but knew only to be the language of love. She met my father, five years later, when she came back to India, and she recognized him as the man from her recurring dreams.
She was afraid to tell him that initially. But when she did, he didn’t laugh at her like she was afraid he would but stared at her for the longest time and then took out a ring he’d been carrying in his pocket for the last six months he said, since a week after they’d met.
Ami Begum had tears in her eyes along with Mehru.
‘She loved him.’
‘You have no idea.’
Her grandmother smiled. Her father wiped his eyes with his white handkerchief.
‘I knew that. I knew and still I…I’m so sorry my daughter.’
Farooq clenched his jaw, but a tear slipped past the boundaries of his lashes. Mehru’s own eyes weren’t dry. She looked at her grandmother, the woman with an iron backbone who couldn’t say the words that hurt her still, because of all that she’d lost with their having come to pass. Her heart warmed again towards her grandmother. Her father too sat smiling at her, through his tears.
‘Jamal means well, Mehru. He read every day to me, to us both for a whole week. He’s your husband. Do you want me to talk to him?’ asked her father.
Mehru didn’t know what to say to him. Her grandmother’s story of Jamal engineering their closure and mending fences didn’t sit well with Mehru at all. Had he? Why would he do something like this after all that he’d done to her? After his betrayal?
She shook the thought away and focused on her grandmother and father.
‘What’s going on with you and Jamal?’ asked her grandmother.
Mehru looked away.
‘Ami Begum…Abba. I love you and I’m very happy that we’ve found each other after all this time but…I don’t wish to talk about him. I’m sorry. Please don’t think I’m being rude, it’s just that it’s too…complicated. I don’t know what is going on.’
‘Jamal is a kind-hearted man.’
‘He doesn’t have a heart.’
Glossary of words:
Chacha: paternal uncle
Apa: older sister
Mehru got up and left. She was still angry with Jamal. How could he have done this to her? And then he went and did something so sweet and wonderful, like talk with her father and grandmother to make sure they understood her position. He didn’t have to…then why did he? Why would he not forgive or forget but take time out every day to thaw Ami Begum’s heart that had remained stone cold for twenty odd years.
He’d come to her grandmother and father, but he hadn’t come after her, just like he said he wouldn’t. He hadn’t forgotten or forgiven, and he certainly did not love her. Or he would’ve come after her wouldn’t he?
Ever since she’d come back with her father two weeks ago, Jamal had not returned to see her grandmother. He hadn’t even tried to contact Mehru. That night, Mehru cried herself to sleep.
For two weeks she’d heard and tolerated Sania’s smirking face, and her snide remarks about her ‘broken marriage’ and it hurt her terribly. Was her marriage broken after all? How could she live her life like this? Why couldn’t he just have been a little sorrier? Why couldn’t he just say he loved her too? And what if she was pregnant? Had he thought of that? No, he hadn’t! Did he care about his unborn child?
No, he didn’t.
Anger and self-pity made her so miserable that she wrote a story about it. She put all her fears of having to bring up Jamal’s imaginary baby on her own, and how years later, the child, her son, would grow up and find his father who would be very, very, sorry indeed that he’d hurt his child’s mother…but it would be too late because by then Mehru would be dead. Jamal would cry his heart out at her grave and shed tears of remorse, but it wouldn’t matter—because she’d be dead!
That night Mehru didn’t cry.
She felt better after having purged herself of all that emotional debris. She needed to think about things. What she’d done to him had been rather atrocious and cruel. Maybe, he deserved another chance? Maybe, if he said he was sorry…really and truly sorry, she’d let him off the hook because after all, she expected him to let her off the hook as well.
But a week later, Mehru was in tears again. She’d turned her room upside down but she still couldn’t find it. Her story of the baby had disappeared. She was just a wee bit apprehensive about it. Had she sent it along with the other story to the magazine for publishing? She wasn’t sure. God, what if she had! What a terrible fiasco! She had to stop it at all cost. She called the editor of the magazine in panic…
He’d already run the story in this week’s issue…this morning.
Mehru’s heart was thumping in her chest wildly. What if Jamal read it? What would he say? And when he’d find out that it was just another lie…
It was a hoarse whisper. She turned, already dreading what she knew to be true…and yes, there he was…Jamal was standing in her doorway, looking…thrilled and his eyes shining and…oh no….oh no, he believed it!
‘Mehru?’ He smiled and came forward to her, took her face gently in his hands, ‘I should’ve come sooner. It’s just…my pride was badly injured…twice. I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner…I know it was wrong of me to go through your things. You were right. And this…I’m so happy.’
She was at a loss. His kiss was gentle, like all the promises he used to make with his eyes before he thought she’d betrayed him.
‘I’m sorry, Mehru…I’m so sorry I hurt you. I was so hung up on what you’d been saying and doing, I didn’t think about my own actions till you pointed it out and then I just…I didn’t want to make a fool of myself again, over you…but I’ve been one all along. You know that don’t you?’
He kissed her like a starved man, held her so close, yet so gently, as if she were made of glass. And he kept talking.
‘That first time you said you were having….someone else’s baby? That was the most torturous night of my life. I couldn’t get the words out of my head…and today when I read that story…your story…’
He kissed her again so passionately.
Mehru felt hysterical with pain at having to tell him…to break his heart again. But then suddenly a brilliant scheme germinated and she decided that she wouldn’t have to. They could make it true…
‘Jamal…I’m sorry too. I hurt you too badly…but let’s forget about all that now…’
‘Mehru…I love you so much. I can’t stop thinking about you…haven’t slept…’
‘I love you too, Jamal.’
‘I know…I love you so much, Mehru.’
She laughed and then, soon, when words weren’t enough Jamal showed Mehru exactly how much he’d missed her.
‘It’s the beginning of your tenth month Mehru!’
‘Jamal will you relax? Sometimes babies come late.’
‘Not after ten months! We have to go to the doctor again. They keep giving you the wrong due date. I’m going to call Dr. Rehana myself to tell her that this is unacceptable…’
Quickly, she interrupted.
‘Jamal your calculation is wrong.’
‘It most certainly isn’t. It was September…that first time, and so…’
Mehru touched his cheek gently, ‘It’s okay.’
‘I’m calling the doctor right now. Such a delay could endanger your life or the baby. I can’t risk that, Mehru.’
She stroked his cheek again and whispered, ‘Jamal…you’re not going to like what I have to say, but you’ll have to remember that you love me very, very much.’
Jamal sighed. ‘What did you do now?’
He looked at her with eyes narrowed and asked, ‘About what?’
She pouted and whispered, ‘My pregnancy.’
Jamal laughed his head off.
‘Seeing the size of you—not that you don’t look absolutely beautiful—but I think we can both agree that that was not a lie.’
She looked up at him, her eyes watering. Her hormones were still quite useful.
‘I’m sorry. But don’t be cross with me about this?’
Jamal wiped her tears away and said gently, ‘I can’t be angry with you…and we both know how much you manipulate my weakness.’
She chuckled through her tears, and then said, softly, rubbing her head against his chest, as was her habit when she wanted to pacify him and Jamal sighed.
‘See the thing is, when I wrote that story that brought you back thinking I was pregnant…I wrote it because I was angry with you. You should’ve made more of an effort with me, you see? And you didn’t, so I was angry and I wrote that story thinking, you know, what if I was pregnant? And then, totally by mistake…and this is important to remember that it was totally by mistake…I sent it out with the others that had to go for printing…’
Jamal fidgeted, trying to look at her face, ‘Mehru, what are you saying?’ His voice was rising along with his colour.
‘Now, now, my love…we are having a baby…that’s for certain, as you so rightly and very chivalrously pointed out…the only thing is, it isn’t really even my ninth month yet.’
Jamal stared at her and asked very gravely, ‘Is that why you wouldn’t let me go to the doctor with you, the last few times?’
She nodded, ‘It’s been very difficult you know…doing it all alone, being sick and the hormones and the…’
She stopped at his thunderous look.
‘Eighth still, I’m afraid…We’re three days into it.’
He sighed and let his head fall back on the couch. He’d been waiting every day for the past one month for this baby and now he had to wait nearly another two months. He raised his head and growled, ‘Mehru…’
Suddenly she winced and then she gasped, ‘Jamal…I feel sick…my back hurts….I think…’
‘I’m not falling for this again, Mehru, so…’
He sprang towards her, his heart sinking, looking terrified, ‘What’s wrong? I’ll call the doctor…’
Mehru smiled at him and purred, ‘No…it’s okay I feel better already.’
Jamal’s expression changed from fear to relief to anger and then resignation. Shaking his head as if in wonder, he said softly, ‘If it’s a girl, I’m in trouble. I don’t think I could handle two of you.’
Mehru laughed, and their kisses were full of promises that both of them had every intention of keeping for the rest of their lives.
And they did.