“So as I was saying Mrs. Ismail-”
“Sorry, Jamilah. As I was saying, we’ve been monitoring various shops in the district and found yours to be quite different from the rest.”
“Why do you say so?”
“Deluxe Avenue is the only shop on this side of the town that sells the most unique products. You have an eye for what your customer needs. And well, the store display speaks for itself!”
“You are showering me with too much praise, Mr.Ajmal. I wonder what’s the catch. You didn’t allow me to even share the presentation I’ve prepared.” said Jamiliah gesturing to all the documents that were pushed aside.
Ajmal Aziz was always on time to every meeting. He was visiting the small town of Mallikottai to scout a few shops his team had researched. AM Industries belonged to his father and Ajmal was the shiny new GM, beloved by his colleagues. He’d overheard them talking about Deluxe Avenue and was intrigued. It wasn’t every day that a business owned by a woman from a conservative town was talked about. AM Industries funded small businesses with the intent of absorbing them in the future. So far they had been successful in partnering with multiple businesses in the area. But this woman, Ajmal could sense, was going to be challenge.
“This meeting is just an informal discussion to see where you stood before we got more involved. Tell me, Jamilah, how do you manage your staff?”
“Yes, it looks like you are running a profitable business here and I’m sure there must be a few people helping you?”
“Umm.. Ravi works here part time in arranging the window display. I have two sales girls and a stock boy. Oh, and Kumar Uncle. He does the accounts and manages the store in my absence.”
“And that’s it?”
“Yes”, Jamilah said faltering, “Do you think I need more people?”
“I’d think not! You seem to be doing really well! To be honest, I’m surprised that a girl from our town is doing so well.”
“Yes, I’m from Mallikottai too! I’ve lived in Ramanathan Street my whole life until I moved to Madras for college.” Ajmal said smiling “I’m actually surprised we’ve never met!”
Jamilah held his stare for a second longer than she should have. A weird feeling crept over her. Her cheeks flushed and his smile made her heart beat faster. She was a stranger to this foreign feeling and yet it intrigued her. As she pulled away from his eyes she said, “My parents never let us go out that much. Maybe that’s why we’ve never met!” she said giving him the lamest excuse she could think of.
Jamilah was an expert in climbing over balconies and jimmying locks. The cryptic details of the times she sneaked out of her parent’s home were frivolous memories that were only relived at college reunions. For some strange reason she found herself drawn to Ajmal. His thoughtful face, steeped in kindness and free of judgment drew out her most intimate memories. She knew that if her pushed her a little more, she would topple of the edge and with that her secrets would follow close behind.
“Your parents must have been very strict. And yet they’ve allowed all this?” he asked looking around.
“My father was against it right from the start. But my mother in law is very supportive and that’s what helped me.”
“Mother in law”, Ajmal said “so does that mean there’s a husband in the scene too?”
Jamilah smiled. “Yes, there’s a husband. And a two year old daughter.”
“And a business.”
“And a business.”
“Well, Madam, if in an alternate reality this town had a Woman of the Year award I believe it would go to you!”
Jamilah burst out laughing. “An award like that would cripple Mallikottai’s ego! Also, getting through one day is a big enough achievement for me.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself”, said Ajmal kindly. “There aren’t many women who could do half the things you’ve achieved. You’ve fought against the system and you’ve succeeded. So you can give yourself some credit.”
“Thank you. That’s the nicest compliment I’ve ever received.” She smiled. “For a long time I wondered if it was even worth continuing my father’s business. We were so close to selling it. But I couldn’t go ahead with the sale. My father and I didn’t agree on many issues. But I couldn’t dream of giving this shop away without at least trying. Believe me, no one in my family was thrilled about the idea.”
“I can imagine. Hopefully this is just a generational thing. My father is the same – too blind to see the opportunities that exist beyond our traditional values. But I don’t blame him, that’s how he was raised.” Ajmal shrugged.
Jamilah had never met a man who dismissed the conventional ideas that formed the foundation of their society. The few men who did encourage their daughters to pursue education and opportunities focused only on the “respectable” professions of doctors and teachers. Anything else was considered a disgrace, and it was a reflection of the family she came from. Jamilah found it hard to believe that Ajmal was from her town. All the bachelors she knew of as a young girl were either related to her or bored little rich boys who sailed on ancestral money. It was rare for a man to be humble, intelligent and so, so easy on the eyes. But it wasn’t just his looks that made her uneasy. It was his kindness. His brown eyes were warm, inviting and oozed of tenderness that for a minute she was transported back to the only other set of eyes like these she had known – Kannan’s. She never saw Kannan, her best friend after the horrifying function that was held to acknowledge her coming of age. She was deemed ready for the marriage market and since society considered it unbecoming for a young girl to be seen fraternizing with boys, her father forbid her from speaking to Kannan.
The limitations Jamilah’s parents enforced on their three daughters were rigid. Their son Mansoor however, by virtue of being a boy enjoyed a freedom that the girls fought tooth and nail for. He had unrestricted access to everything from over night trips with his friends to attending university in Madras and to his mother’s great displeasure, he even married a good-for-nothing relative’s daughter.
“So when do you think you will be ready?” asked Ajmal.
“Ready? For what?”
“Ready with your answer. You should go over the documents. There’s a lot of fine print you need to understand,” he said handing her the papers. “Honestly, I was skeptical when I came here but you’ve managed to change my mind. It’s not often that someone can do that.”
Ajmal had always wondered if he had made the right decision in joining his family business. He went through a long period of indecisiveness before taking his father up on the offer. But right now, sitting in front of this intelligent, beautiful woman whom he knew was out of his reach, he thought about every decision he had taken, every incident that occurred which brought him here, to Deluxe Avenue, and at that instant every regret he ever had about his life escaped his body. For the first time in a long time he finally felt like he was where he was supposed to be.
“I might be partial when I say this, but I feel you should consider the proposal.” He said hoping to nudge her along the right way. “It will do you good.”
“And your business too.” He added as an afterthought.
“Thanks for your opinions, but I need to discuss this with Kumar Uncle before I take any big decisions. I hope you understand.”
“Its not as easy as it looks, you know.” Jamilah said hesitantly. “This deal will change a lot of things for me. So I need to think twice before I make a decision. I will be spending more time here and I’m guessing we-” she gestured to him “will be working together a lot and for the sake of well, many reasons I need to make sure it’s the right decision.”
“Jamilah, you need to decide what’s best for your business, for your future, if you want to succeed in this path. If not, you might be stuck in this dinky little town forever when you can actually achieve much more!”
Jamilah gazed willfully around the shop. She had invested a lot in bringing Deluxe Avenue to its current standing. There were long tear fueled nights spent fighting with her family. Shahida noticed daughter in laws’ tolerance of her son. She saw how hard Jamilah worked to distract herself from her husband’s meanderings. If Shahida wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy in her life she had to give Jamilah the support she needed. It was better for Jamilah to invest her energy into something else instead of constantly thinking about her husband. The main reason Shaihda was cooperative had nothing to do with her understanding nature. It was pity.
Shaihda had been in the same situation as her daughter in law. For all his wealth and notoriety, Aslam wasn’t a model husband. He had his dalliances that Shahida protested furiously, but it did nothing to weaken Aslam’s conquests. The constant doubt and suspicion drained Shahida’s reserve so she threw herself in to caring for her children. Having been through the weary battle of fighting for her husband, Shahida did not want her daughter in law to lose herself the same way. She was ashamed of her son and his behavior, but what could she as a mother do apart from hint at her disapproval. After all, she was to live in her son’s house for the rest of her living life.
Ismail’s true nature came to sight within a few months of his marriage. When Jamilah ran to her mother after learning of her husband’s indiscretions, she was comforted with a promise that once she has a baby, everything would fall into place. Her husband would return back to her, for a baby can fix everything. This old wives tales of healing broken marriages with babies was an excuse to ignore the problems at hand. At first Jamilah was naïve enough to believe that her mother would never suggest something as ignorant as this. But soon she learned to see her mother in a different light. She realized how conditioned her mother was to these scenarios to actually believe in tales and fake remedies. This led Jamilah down a path to question the reason for her own existence. Was I a Band-Aid baby to save my parents marriage? The answer was one she did not want to confront
But as fate would have it, and against her better judgment, Jamilah had found herself pregnant that following winter.
For the past few years Jamilah had run her business flawlessly. She always did right by he employees and was respected in the markets as a forthright businessperson. Talking to Ajmal she could clearly visualize the next step in her career. She had exhausted all the requisite boxes and only one thing remained as the obvious next step – expansion. The potential for growth in a small town was remarkable. People were slowly opening up to “big city ideas” and the need for change, for growth was palatable. Jamilah knew that an opportunity like this did not come around often and when it did, she had to grab it or decide to fall back out of the race to remain stagnant.
The force that held her back was her husband. The expansion meant more hours away from him and her home. Already they only ever saw each other on weeknights and even then Ismail was a tense, quivering mass of uncertainty coming up with excuses to stay out of the house. Jamilah could sense that something was afoot with him. But before coming to a decision about her business she needed clarity in her personal life.
“You’re right Ajmal”, she said finally. “But I need more time to think about it.”
“Sure. Anything that will make you consider the deal.” He smiled.
“Its time for me to leave.” Ajmal said, gathering his things.
“Uh.. yeah,” he smiled sheepishly. “I have to visit a few more shops.”
“Of course you do.”
“But I will be back soon”, he quickly added.
“I will drop by tomorrow. You know, just to nudge you in the right direction.” He grinned.
“Yeah, lets see about that!”
Ajmal had to forcefully tear himself away from her presence. As he walked out the door and into his car he did a quick check his intentions. I’m here for work, he told himself repeatedly, she’s a married woman so no good can come from this. Just do your work. But the thought of Jamilah bursting with potential and having no one to support her affected him more than he could imagine.
With one last glance at the twinkling blue lights of Deluxe Avenue Ajmal forced himself to drive away hastily, leaving behind a tuft of smoke.