“I am meeting Syed tonight,” said Ismail, “so don’t wait up for me.”
Jamilah sighed. She knew this was coming. Lata, her neighbor had told her that Syed was in town so she was anticipating this.
Ismail tucked in his shirt and turned to the mirror. Hair gelled, shirt crisp, pants starched and that colgate smile. He was ready to start the day. He walked over to Jamilah and hugged her from behind. The smell of his cologne was intoxicating, and not in a good way. But Jamila was used to being ambushed by her husband.
Ismail held his wife around her waist and looked at her reflection in the mirror. It was as if five years of marriage and a two year old daughter had done nothing to diminish her beauty. She still looked as beautiful as she did on their wedding day.
“How late will you be?” Jamilah asked gently, not wanting to push his buttons lest he lose his temper, which he did quite often these days.
Ismail quickly withdrew his hands. She could see the cloud of anger forming in his eyes. One more question and it would set him off. Lately, Ismail had been tethering on the edge for far too long.
“I don’t know, okay. Syed is back after months and this is the one night I get to meet him where his crazy wife isn’t in town. I just want to meet one friend and here you are going all crazy on me when you are the one who come home late every night!”, Ismail bellowed as he ran his hand through his hair
Jamilah was expecting this. There it was, the key. The key that he was lying and/or feeling guilty. Ismail was very vain about his hair and rarely touched it. When he did ruffle his hair it meant something was wrong. Jamilah was quick to pick up on this trait. Obviously, Ismail wasn’t aware of this. She was not going to let go of the one thing she held over him.
Jamilah walked to her husband and held his hand, “You know why I work, Ishu. My shop is the only thing that keeps me sane. It’s the one thing my father left me and no matter how many times we have this conversation I am not giving it up.”
“I know, Jamilah. But its not about your shop. Do you think I can’t hear the accusations in your voice?”
You know what I do. I’d prefer it if you didn’t acknowledge it.
“I wasn’t accusing you of anything! If you felt guilty it was on your own accord!”
You know you are guilty, you can’t even hide it.
“Lata has always been a gossip. The whole neighborhood knows that. Please don’t believe everything she says!”
Stupid bitch needs to keep her eyes on her own family.
“It’s not what Lata said…”
It’s what the whole neighborhood did not say. It’s what her family ignored just to get her married. It’s what her mother-in-law knew but was ashamed of. Its what Ismail’s newest conquest was thinking. It’s what the whole world saw but did not dare mention it to her – she was married to a philanderer.
“Look here, Jamilah,” he interrupted, “if you have a problem then I think you should stay with your mother for a few weeks.”
The only thing worse than marrying a philanderer was leaving him for her parents.
“Don’t be silly, Ismail. Of course I don’t want to stay with my mother”
She won’t take me back.
“It’s almost 9,” Jamilah continued, “and I don’t want to be late for my meeting.” She turned to the mirror and started brushing her hair.
Outside the doors of this tumultuous marriage between two people, forced through circumstance to stay together, was the world that forced them to. Ismail and Jamilah lived with Ismail’s mother – Shahida. When Ismail was thirteen years old his father had died in a car crash leaving behind a small fortune. Small enough that Ismail could sail through his life without lifting a finger. Shahida tried to instill some responsibility in to the boy, but the lack of a male role model was evident. All through college, which he only cleared because the principal was a family friend, Ismail had a string of girlfriends. Now, at 29, his boyish charm was still in tact. Marriage did not stop him from straying. His uncle who took care of his fathers’ business replenished his bank account every month, he had his mother to make him breakfast every morning, a wife who gave him a daughter to silence the grapevine and a girl on the side to direct his interests to.
Aslam’s dream was for his son to study abroad, unheard of in the small town. Although the town was filled with business men whose wealth enriched the fields and markets, rarely did an heir study more than required. Aslam wanted to be different. His son was going to front that educational revolution he saw coming. Unfortunately for him, Aslam’s dreams remained just that as his son wasted away his inheritance on fast cars and expensive clothes.
“Ishu, come sit for breakfast”, Shahida knocked at her sons door. Breakfast was always a rich affair in the upper class neighborhood of M.R. Nagar – two kinds of meat, vadais and a towering stack of idlies. Jamilah followed the dutiful wife portocol and served her husband.
“Ismail, can you please ask your uncle to call Nasreen? It’s been two weeks and he hasn’t spoken to her family.” Nasreen was the oldest of Shahida’s children. She was the beauty of the family, married at nineteen. Shahida had always wondered if she made a mistake by not letting her daughter pursue an education, but it wasn’t easy being a young widow with a beautiful daughter. “Give her off before the vultures come to your door”, Haseena maami had warned her, “now that your husband is gone there is no one to protect you.” So, eight months after burying her father, Nasreen was married to the first proposal that came her way. Salim was a quiet, serious looking doctor from a good family. Shahida was sure he would keep her daughter happy. After all, he had three sisters himself and “it is best to give your daughter to a family with girls”, according to Haseena maami.
“Ma! What are you doing!”, Ismail’s shriek yanked Shahida from her daydream.
“Sorry Raja!”, she said wiping down the spilt gravy.
“Why don’t you have breakfast too?”, he said, pulling up a chair.
“Ya, sit maami and I will get you some tea. I have a meeting so I have to leave soon.”
Jamilah said a prayer of gratitude for her mother in law everyday. She was the only upside of marrying Ismail. They had a great relationship that drew in a lot of jealousy from their family members. Shahida was the first person Jamilah spoke to about taking over the shop. She was more supportive than her own parents. She was the one who convinced Ismail too. Jamilah suspected that allowing her daughter in law to conduct business in a conservative town was Shahida’s way of repayment for marrying her philandering son.
Shahida was no innocent widow as her son would have liked to believe. She was well aware of his wandering ways. The hushed tones and shifty eyes did not fool her. But she never confronted Ismail about it. People in their society did not talk about such things. They were shameful secrets and the more they were ignored, the more they stayed hidden. Such was the habit in this society. Man was expected to stray because that was how he functions. The woman however, was to ignore his shortcomings, produce babies and not air out her dirty laundry in public. But this did not stop the purveyors of gossip who fluttered between houses carrying juicy bits of information.
Anyway, though Shahida, he is married now and Jamilah is a smart girl who will hammer some sense into him.
“Here don’t forget your lunch, Jamilah”, she said, handing her her bag.
“Thanks maami. Salam, I will see you in the evening. Ismail…”, she nodded to her husband and left the house.