Fiction, Word Pad

Four

One

Two 

Three

The moment Ajmal left the building Jamilah could sense a severing connection. Despite being a stranger until an hour ago his very presence had given Jamilah the comfort and motivation she was looking for. As she talked to him, she could feel the excitement building up inside her. Expanding the business! Opportunities! Maybe even opening up another branch! With Ajmal’s presence the opportunities seemed limitless and she had to catch herself before she jumped in heart first. But the instant he left Jamilah felt like she was recoiled back in to the dark and had been left to fumble her way through. Experience had taught her that she could never rely on her husband to indulge in her interests. Kumar Uncle was always the one to give her business advice. Or Ramesh Anna next door. Ismail regularly attempted to forget the existence of his wife’s career. Acknowledging her interests would mean recognizing that she had a separate life. Daily conversation between the husband and wife were restricted to the few things in life they had in common: their daughter, food, family and Ismail’s excuses for leaving work early. These topics were peppered with fights and disagreements strewn about generously.

Where Jamilah worked hard, Ismail was vain. His vanity did not stop at his good looks and impeccable dress sense; it extended to befriending other men like himself- rich, spoilt sons of wealthy men. Luckily for Ismail Mallikottai wasn’t a town that lacked in these type of men. Most of his friends were married. Their wives had one of two things going on for them: beauty or wealth. The luckier few had wives who were bestowed with both and they didn’t let anyone forget it. Jamilah preferred to stay away from this battleground where women competed against each other in every element of their lives. She enjoyed that the women considered her a recluse.

Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and charities were just excuses to throw lavish parties for their friends. Jamilah was satisfied with being a spectator at these events and none of the women complained. They couldn’t understand why she felt the need to have a career of her own when her husband could provide her with a comfortable life. Jamilah’s thirst for independence and ambition were unrecognizable qualities, almost alien. She preferred to stay away from the fake concern and forced pleasantries that were thrown around carelessly. But today was not her day.

Jamilah’s phone beeped with a reminder from Ismail. It was the first birthday of one of Ismail’s friends’ son. Jamilah and Ismail were expected to attend it. And Ismail would be there, grudgingly, his plans for the night foiled. Neither of them were thrilled about it.

The mood outside No: 13, Subramanian street was a cheerful one. From outside, the menacing gates that guarded the bungalow seemed like it housed all the happy people of Mallikottai. Hundreds of fairy lights covered the façade of the building. The rose garden was blooming with three different colored roses. Through the windows one could see a mesmerizing collection of people- silhouettes of men who oozed privilege and women in sparkling jewels. Although it was just a birthday party for a one-year-old boy, there was not a baby in sight. All the children occupied the first floor of the house with their nannies in charge of feeding and putting them to sleep. The older children were gathered in the rose garden, the girls huddled together giggling and talking as only girls do, and the boys, fighting over who gets the prettiest girl. It was clear to the participants of the game that this meaningless tryst in the rose garden would remain just that- meaningless. Their parents deliberately ignored the teenagers making eyes at each other for who they’d ultimately end up with would be planned by their families.

Inside the mansion a wide, extremely ornate room divider split the large hall in two. The marble floors boastfully reflected the light from beaming crystal chandeliers. The light effect was splendid and gave the impression of the room being drenched in gold. The men occupied the front half of the hall and the women mingled on the other side.

After greeting the host and mildly acknowledging a few guests, Jamilah headed straight to the buffet that bordered the room. The quicker she finished her dinner, the sooner she could leave. The same couldn’t be said for her husband. Ismail was the life of every party and loved to hold court amongst his friends. They could always count on him to entertain with the best stories and Ismail loved the attention. The admiration of his peers fuelled his ego and his stories became wilder as the night passed on.

“Jamilah!” a voice behind her shrieked. It was Nilofer, the queen bee of Mallikottai. Her family had lived in the town for many generations and now owned half of it. She was married into a family that owned the rest and hence cemented her place as the unofficial heir of Mallikottai. The evidence of excess wealth could be seen around the diamond bangles around her wrists and the emerald necklace that circled her slim neck. The pallu of her red sari delicately framed Nilofer’s face, showing just enough of her brown hair to be considered appropriate. Nilofer was surrounded by four other women, all poor imitations of Nilofer from the tips of their fake brown hair to the ends of their painted talons.

Although inevitable, Jamilah dreaded the idea of socializing with the first ladies of Mallikottai. But everyone in the room was related to each other with by marriage or by business, and politeness even in the most strained manner, was expected. As much as she wanted to ignore the petit, sharp woman in front of her, she couldn’t.

“Hi Nilofer”, Jamilah faked enthusiasm and said. “How are you?”

“Alhamdulilah, I’m good.” Nilofer threw back her perfect little head and smiled. “We’ve all been waiting to see you! It’s been so long. Is everything okay?” she asked quietly, edging closer to Jamilah hoping to catch any piece of gossip that dropped out of her mouth.

“Oh, everything’s fine, Nilofer. I’ve just been busy with work.”

“Right. You own a boutique of some sort don’t you?” one of the ladies accompanying Nilofer asked.

“Its not a boutique, Sheila.” Nilofer snapped. “It’s a party store, am I right?” she asked Jamilah.

“Its not just a party store. We sell everything from stationery, home stuff, kitchen items, gifts and yes, party stuff too. You’ve been there Nilofer. You should know.”

“Oh yes, but that was a while back. I just have no time these days! The children are busy with school and Ali just can’t do anything without me!” Nilofer laughed.

“So how is Ismail?” Nilofer asked patting Jamilah’s arm.

This was the conversation Jamilah had been dreading. The question meant that the news of Ismail’s dealings had travelled through to infiltrate the ears of the curious. But funnily enough, Ismail wasn’t the only one involved in these matters. She had it on good record that Kamil, whose house she was in, had a nasty little situation involving another woman a few months back. Even Nilofer’s husband wasn’t as angelic as she made him out to be. Ali was considerate enough to have his women outside Mallikottai and considering he travelled a lot for work, this arrangement suited his wife.

The truth about their husbands did not seem to outwardly affect these women. Appearances were a higher priority than feelings. As long as the women appeared in public with their husbands smiling and chatting away, everything was fine. In private most of the women chided, persuaded and some even blackmailed their husbands. But separation and divorce was such a taboo word that their families rather their sisters and daughters were married to cheating men than be single mothers and divorcees.

Despite knowing the grey cloud that overshadowed the women looking down at her right now, Jamilah never brought it up. The only way women like Nilofer could sleep at night was by disturbing another person’s sense of peace which served as a great distraction for her own crumbling family life.

“Ismail is fine” Jamilah said dryly. “Work keeps him busy.”

“Oh.. but we heard. Okay, never mind what we heard. As long as he is fine and you two are back together again. That’s all that matters right?” Nilofer’s saccharine sweet voice asked. “Now come on, let’s eat before the food is over!” said Nilofer walking away. Her mission was only partially completed. She had one more trick up her sleeve that would be revealed in due time.

Jamilah struggled to keep her food down after that painful interaction with Nilofer. For a while she was worried about being tormented by the ghosts of his past affairs for as it turned out, no one would let her forget about her husband. The crowded women’s area was masked with a strong scent of perfume, jasmine flowers and the smell of biriyani. The combination of these scents created a heady, mesmerizing scent that for a moment Jamilah was sure she was going to faint. Obese aunties decked in kanjeevaram saris and gold jewelry freely distributed unsolicited marriage advice to the younger girls. It didn’t matter what the event in question was, marriage proposals and meetings were held.

From the corner of her eye Jamilah spotted a meeting between two prospects, overseen by overenthusiastic chaperones. The girl in question was young, slim and had a beautiful heart shaped face. On her long, elegant nose glistened a diamond pin. For a minute Jamilah forgot about her dizzy spell and the girl held her attention. There was something about her, the way she was talking to her suitor, seemingly enchanted by his presence that felt familiar. The aunty who had aligned the fate of these young people looked pleased with her handiwork. The boy was smitten. He couldn’t take his eyes off the girl.

A hand clasped Jamilah’s shoulders. Nilofer was back. “That’s Alisha.” she said “Her family lived in Cumbum for a long time and they’ve relocated back to Mallikottai. Her parents are looking to get her married here. Isn’t she pretty?”

“Yeah, very beautiful.” said Jamilah distractedly “Where do they live?” she enquired hoping for an answer that would dispel the fear that had mounted over her.

“Her father has built a huge mansion in Lakshmi Nagar. It’s probably the biggest house on the street.”

Jamilah’s hands gripped the edges of her plate. Images of her husband from last week came flooding back to her. It began as any other Tuesday did. She was on her way to check on some stock that had been delivered to the warehouse. After making sure that everything was in place, Jamilah stepped out to start her scooter. It was already five in the evening and she still had some work to complete before she was done for the day. Just as she was about to start the ignition, a silver Mercedes approached her from the opposite direction. Jamilah recognized the number plate instantly. She was surprised at her husbands’ thoughtfulness to give her a ride. But the car stopped a few feet away at the entrance of the street. As she was about to approach it, a tall vision in blue jumped out from the passenger’s seat. The face was overshadowed by a flurry of bouncy curls. The giggling figure leaned into the car for a last whisper. After she was done, she placed the edge of her dupatta back on her head and walked down to the huge white house, her diamond nose pin frantically sparkling in the hot sun. Once she entered through the gates, the silver Mercedes returned back to the street where it came from and sped away.

It’s difficult to describe the thoughts that crossed Jamilah’s head that instant. Her mind kept replaying the number plate over and over again. Every bone in her body knew the truth, but accepting it was a hard pill to swallow. Ismail was supposed to be at work, she convinced herself. Maybe he lent the car to someone? But even as the thought formed in her head she knew how wrong she was. Ismail never let anyone drive his precious Mercedes.

Over the past years Jamilah had collected tiny evidences of Ismail’s affairs. Hurried phone calls, late nights at the office, secret smiles when Ismail thought no one was looking. All these she kept locked away in a separate compartment in her head. These were her doubts, never proven but locked away to be used at the right moment. But this was the first time she had actually stopped to consider how real they were.

Flesh and blood, tall and pretty, carefree and happy.

Real.

But this girl was so young, Jamilah thought. And while she blamed her husband for his uncontrollable avarices, she couldn’t help but wonder what a beautiful young girl saw in her thirty year old loafer of a husband. Was there some secret desirable part of Ismail that she was blind to? Yes, he was good looking but personality wise he didn’t have much to offer. It was clear the young woman was not after his money. She seemed wealthy enough to last her a few lifetimes. So what was it that brought these two people together?

This was a question only Ismail could answer. As much as she tried to ignore it, the anger flooded her blood. Jamilah dreamed of many things but she never dreamed she’d catch Ismail red handed. She knew that if she did catch him in the act the next step would be inevitable.

Jamilah stood frozen to the ground unsure of what to do next. Maneuvering this piece of information could easily break the system that was carefully constructed. Every breath she took was like a dagger dug deeper into her heart. This affair was not in the background anymore. It was standing right in front of her, too real to ignore. Finally, the time to make a decision had arrived and Jamilah was frozen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fiction

Three

One

Two

“So as I was saying Mrs. Ismail-”

“Jamilah.”

“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?”

“My 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.”

“Our town?”

“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.

“Already?”

“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.

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Book Mark, Fiction

Two

One

Jamilah parked her scooter in Vijaynagar Market, the most crowded street in the city where she was fortunate enough to have her shop. Every morning she drove past the questionable glances and piercing eyes of her neighbors. In this small town everyone, especially someone with a story tailing their back were well known. The hushed tones didn’t bother her as she made a habit of leaving the futile thoughts at the threshold of her shop. Deluxe Avenue – a variety shop that nestled comfortably between a bakery and a fabric store was what she considered home. The glittering blue lights around the signboard never failed to make her heart swell with pride. Deluxe was the result of many tears and fights. When her father died leaving the tiny stationery shop in a state of disarray, Jamilah was the one who jumped in and took control. Over the years, she gave the shop a new facelift by stocking unique products and attracted a different clientele. Hameed would be squirming in his grave if he knew his daughter was in charge. Although he was aware of his daughter’s bustling nature, his conservative attitude felt compelled to ignore it.

“Good morning, madam!” a voice from a group of boys nearby called out to her.

“Good morning, Ravi! Are you ready for school?”

“Yes, madam. I want to stay and help you today, but Amma said that I have to go to school.” the boy frowned.

“Amma is right, Ravi! Once you complete your studies I will give you more duties than just arranging the display. But promise me you will score good marks this term too.”

“Okay, I promise!” Ravi shouted gleefully and ran to rejoin his mates.

Priya is so lucky to have that boy, Jamilah thought to herself, if only her drunkard husband realized it.

“Good morning, Jamilah!” came a voice from the desk at the entryway. The voice belonged to Kumar Uncle, the 55-year-old manager whose help Jamilah enlisted to run the shop.

“Good morning, Uncle! So are we ready for today?”

“Yes, yes. Someone from AM Industries called me last night and said their representative will be here at 10.”

“Okay, that’s good,” Jamilah nodded “I will show you the presentation I’ve created. Did you clear out the meeting room?”

“Yes, I did. You can take a look upstairs.”

Jamilah inhaled sharply and climbed up the stairs. There were three moments in her life so far that she considered noteworthy: reopening the shop, her daughter’s birth, and her wedding. Each day had changed her life drastically. Today would go down in the list as the fourth day. A few months back at an exhibition, she had met someone who had presented her with an opportunity that was too tempting to ignore. AM Industries was a huge company that dabbled in investing and promoting small businesses. Jamilah promised herself she wouldn’t be swayed by just the promise of expansion but she would weigh her options fairly.

Just like the previous events in her life, she was exceptionally prepared for today. All her documents were in order, the presentation was on her computer, the room was clean and she had spent last night researching the company.

Just then there was a knock on her office door.

“Hey..”, Ismail entered carrying a bag of files that Jamilah had forgotten at home in her haste to leave.

“Ismail! What are you doing here!” Jamilah was surprised at her husband’s rare presence at Deluxe. Most times he left her to her own devices so she was curious about this sudden visit.

“I just felt bad about our fight and thought I’d come see if you are free for lunch later?”

Jamilah looked at her husband, and instead of the suave, young man she saw this morning she only saw a desperate man craving for company, craving for a purpose. He searched everywhere to find his purpose and always returned to his wife after many fruitless attempts. Ismail knew that no matter what he did he could always count on Jamilah. She was the stability to his fiery impulsiveness. Although he knew his wife was aware of his dalliances, he was always defensive when she brought it up.

“Don’t you have to go see the builder in the afternoon?”

“I do. But Majid Uncle is there. He said he would let me know what happens.”

Ismail’s long breaks from work never had a deadline. Majid was trustworthy enough and as long as he kept things afloat Ismail did not see an issue in letting his uncle run things.

“It’s been three months since you’ve visited the site. Three months, Ismail. Majid Uncle has been going to every one of those meetings and is returning with requests, which you keep satisfying without question. God knows how much money he-“

“Enough, Jamilah!” Ismail bellowed. “Please stop talking badly about my family.”

“I’m not! I am just asking you to-“

“You know, if you get down from your high horse and step into my shoes for a second you would know what I deal with.”

“Fine”, she held up her hands. “You do what you want to”. Today was an important day and Ismail, Jamilah decided, no matter how hard he tried, was not going to ruin it.

“I won’t say a word against your uncle, Ismail”, she held his arms “You can calm down. Thanks for bringing me these”, she said, taking the files that Ismail had brought.

Ismail let out a heavy sigh and turned away.

Jamilah knew going into this marriage that her husband needed to be treated like a child. His wild temper and fluctuating moods preceded his reputation. The family gave in to the whims and fancies of this man-child. Man by way of his vices and child by his erroneous nature. Jamilah was the only person who could handle him. No matter what mood he was in, she could mold him and calm him. Many mistook this for love but Jamilah knew that this was the only way she could survive in this marriage.

“You’re right, Jamilah. I have to keep a watch on Uncle. Even Abu was saying that his quotes were unreasonable. So I guess I should better start paying attention huh!” Ismail sat down holding his head in his hands, “It’s so hard for me to care about these things, Jay.” his voice shook.

“Or anything..” Jamilah thought.

“After Appa’s death Majid took over and I didn’t have to worry about anything. Now it’s work, construction, you, Ma, our daughter and it’s all coming down on me together.”

You forgot the college girl you’ve been hanging out with, Ismail. Remember her? Why isn’t she what’s worrying you? Or is she your comfort?

“It’s all too much and I just want to run away.”

“THEN GO!” her insides screamed. Just leave me, leave everything and please just go! I can’t take another minute of your pathetic cry for attention if you can’t help yourself, her heart pounded as it contained itself inside her. When Jamilah first met Ismail she gullible enough to think that her husband was hers and that together they would reach new heights. But every wish and hope she had on him came tumbling down the moment she saw his true nature. The storm inside her chest had been long forming. It raged and raged, gathering momentum, collecting all the injustices done to her, swirling for years, waiting to be set free.

Jamilah had been taught from a young age to internalize her feelings. Her mother always taught her that nice girls don’t retaliate when subject to disapproval.

“When Appa shouts at you, don’t talk back! Just say sorry and go.”

“If Sara maami says something nasty about you clothes, just smile.”

And then on her wedding day Sara maami, the purveyor of marital guidance took her to a corner and advised her, “Listen to your husband, ponnu. Don’t bother him with meaningless conversations. Whatever he does, it’s for your own good.”

Whatever he does, it’s for your own good.

Whatever he does, it’s for your own good.

“Are you listening?” Ismail’s voice jolted her from her daydream.

“Sure, of course, I am,” she said distractedly “You don’t have to run anywhere”, she held his hand. “With just a bit of effort, we can change things around here.”

The forced sincerity in her voice did not surprise her anymore. Sara maami was right; she was not going to bother Ismail with meaningless conversations. She would dispense her feelings and words to him, as empty as his promises were, whenever he was in need. This way she could conduct her dealings and keep her husband hanging on too. And if time allowed it, she might even be happy.

“Yes, yes, we can try”, Ismail was growing restless. “So what’s happening here?” he asked looking around. “Are you ready for your presentation?”

“Barely. AM Industries is a pretty big company. I’m not sure if I want to be a part of it.”

“Well, maybe partnering with them will give you more free time.” he said as he walked to the door.

Free time.

Yes, that’s exactly what she needed. MORE free time to sit at home and wonder with whom her husband was.

“Let’s see what they say.”

“Good luck and oh, maybe we should cancel that lunch after all. I’m sure you will be busy with work. Perhaps next week.” he smiled “Bye.”

Jamilah was exhausted and it was barely 9 am. Just as she was about to look through her presentation, her phone rang.

“What do you want, Afreen?” she said wearily.

“Wa-alaikum-salam to you too, little sister. What’s the problem? Why do you sound so tired?”

“I’m not tired. Just..busy. Anyway, what do you want?”

“Do you know the date today?”

“It’s the 15th, isn’t?”

“Yes.”

“Oh wow, I never realized it’s been what.. nine years?”

“This is the tenth year, Jay”, said Afreen quietly. “Have you called Ma?”

“Not yet.”

“Call her,” the elder sister commanded, aware of her younger sister’s bristling relationship with their mother.

Ever since she was a child Jamilah was always detached from the rest of her family. Peculiar in her dreams, and not practical as her mother would have liked her to be, Jamilah was a stranger in her own home. Her family couldn’t understand her aspirations. This more often than not brought a rift between mother and daughter, both so different from each other, yet forced to relate to each other. Her mother forced a sense of belonging, which Jamilah naturally resisted. The dreams she had for her life made her a stranger in her family’s eyes. Her aloofness was only cemented ever since that fateful day ten years ago. The disaster had ripped her family apart and none of them were ever healed again. But considering how she felt right now, Jamilah thought that maybe she was already healed.

“Yes, yes, I will call her today.”

“Okay, take care. And good luck for your meeting. Salam!”

“Salam”, Jamilah hung up her phone and walked to the calendar that hung in the corner. March 15th was circled in red.

How could she forget today? Every year she approached the month with apprehension. Her mind was in a tizzy and she couldn’t help but relive those days. The closer she got to the date; a sense of dread enveloped her. But this year was different. Jamilah didn’t feel anything, let alone remember that the day was approaching. Maybe I’m finally over it, she told herself. But is it ever possible to get over death? It doesn’t matter how long it’s been, ten years, twenty years, thirty years. Regardless of how long a person has been dead, their life leaves an imprint on our soul. And when they are gone, the imprint lingers, hidden from the surface but occasionally bursting through, until it’s our time.

But is it ever possible to get over a suicide? When death occurs prematurely and is enforced so fiercely. Was the burden they carried so heavy that it couldn’t be shared? Was the pain so intense that it cut through their heart? Was it this, was it that? If only the dead could answer these questions, then maybe we wouldn’t spend our lifetime searching for the answers.

Jamilah was too preoccupied with her own thoughts to fake concern anymore, so she made a mental note to call her mother later.

“Jamilah, he’s here!” Krishna Uncle burst into the office. “He’s early”, she gasped looking at the time. Jamilah grabbed her things and ran down the stairs to welcome the unplanned detour that would change the course of her life.

 

 

 

 

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Fiction, Word Pad

One

“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.

Two

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Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

***

Ruhi woke up from her afternoon siesta. The sun was blazing at the beach today and her pinstriped umbrella was her only savior. Sand stuck to her sweaty palms and her legs were a warm brown color, a little darker than the tan she wanted but it would do. Ruhi sat up and looked around. The water was sparkling, children were building castles in the sand while the parents soaked up the sun. There were a group of rowdy boys nearby playing volleyball and a gaggle of girls gossiping and tanning.

Ruhi was alone. The only company she had was a book and a half eaten sandwich. She did not mind being alone. In fact, she enjoyed her company. She lied to get herself out of a brunch. Today she didn’t need to be around people. Today she just needed to be with herself.

This new life she was having, she appreciated it more than her last. Her past life was filled with emotions, drama and situations she really didn’t want to be in. This time around she was going to free, take it light, take it slow. No more being obligated to people and no more feeling she owed someone all the time.

Her mind drifted to Farhan. He was so perfect. And kind. And loving. The worst thing was he expected her to be the same – Perfect, Kind, Loving. She was a time bomb, exploding at the worst times. He didn’t love her inspite of that. He wanted to change her in to his version of Ruhi, the one that resided in his head.

The moment she felt his presence nudging her in directions she didn’t want to go, Ruhi backed off. She wanted an education, a grand job, “and travel! And adventure!”. All the things Farhan thought were obsolete. So the moment she got her dream job as a travel writer she jumped at the opportunity. Farhan pleaded with her not to leave. “We’ve had so many wonderful times together, Ruhi, please stay. Stay for me. We’ll even get married one day and I will keep you happy.”

All she heard from that conversation was “Stay for me”.

Stay for me.

Stay for me.

Stay for me.

That meant giving him a part of herself. Ruhi did not want that. She did not want to wake up six years from now regretting marrying the man who slept next her. She did not want to look out the bedroom window and sigh thinking about all the missed opportunities and adventures she never had. Marrying him would mean the end of Ruhi and the beginning of Mrs. Farhan. She did want to get married one day but not half heartedly.

So she left Farhan and that awful city for the sun and the sand. Here, the water seemed endless, just like opportunities. And that’s the kind of life she wanted to lead, free from regrets. She stuck to her guns and look at where that got her!

“There will be time for relationships”, she thought, “There will be time for love. But now is all about me.”

Ruhi sipped on her tall blue drink with a rainbow colored umbrella. Everything was just as she imagined it would be. She snuggled back in to her beach towel.

“Everything was just perfect.”

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Day 16 – Part 2: Farhan

Farhan felt his wife stir beside him. He was a light sleeper and woke up at the slightest sound. Three hours till sunrise and he needed to get all the sleep he could get. Tomorrow, like every other day, was going to be a long one.

***

The sun was up and the smell of dal was in the air. Farhan woke up, kissed the baby and began to do his morning ablutions. He loved his morning showers. That’s the only place he felt safe enough to air his thoughts. Some days he wished the water from the shower would drown him. But ten minutes later he turned it off and stepped out.

The past week was hard on him. He had attended his college reunion and came face to face with bits of his past. He met friends whom he lost contact with, or broken contact with, to be exact. They were talking about Ruhi, about how she was the glue and they all missed her. “But I miss her the most”, thought Farhan.

He hadn’t seen her in four years. People had warned him about tying down a free spirit and he didn’t listen. They were right. Nothing could hold her back, not the love she had for him, not the proposal he offered her. She needed to leave. She was a wild-child and there was nothing more this city could offer her, she said. “I love you, but we’re different Faru. You want the perfect family and I want adventure.”, that’s the last thing she ever said to him.”Maybe one day we will be together”. Farhan nodded but in his heart he knew that it would be the last time he saw those brown eyes.

Bang!

The sounds from the kitchen were louder today. Breakfast consisted of the usual fare. Everything in his life was so systematic – study well, get a good job, have a great love, marry a beautiful girl, car, baby, house. There was no uncertainty with anything. Even Asma made sure to that. She was always perfect in everything she did. But Farhan never noticed her eyes. They said so much without uttering a single word. He was living in his real life fantasy and he never saw how distanced from reality his wife was. He didn’t know the sacrifices she had made. But he made sure to tell her about his past as he wasn’t one for keeping secrets. Asma took it in her stride and never questioned him about it.

He couldn’t help but compare her to his lost dream. Asma had long beautiful, shiny brown hair while Ruhi’s curls were a force to be reckoned with. Asma was always so polite, in fact a little too polite and Ruhi was explicit at the most inappropriate times. He didn’t want to make this comparison. But it suddenly felt like Ruhi was back in his life and had taken control of his thoughts, “But not my heart”, he prayed. He did not want to succumb to the fantasy of what-could-have-been.

As Asma busied herself around the table, Farhan looked at her, for the first time in a long time, with hope. “I can change things around. I just need to want it strong enough.” He got up, drank his last sip of tea, kissed his daughter on her head and was ready to leave. Asma got him his things and he was almost out the door when something held him back. He turned around and looked at Asma.

“Did you forget something?”

“No, I didn’t.”

He gave his perfect wife a peck on the cheek and was off.

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Day 15 – Part 1: Asma

Asma woke up to a crying baby this morning. She was used to the crankiness by now. Naira was eight months old and all the sleepless nights were worth it thought Asma as she got up. Beside her, Farhan was snoring softly. She walked up to the bassinet by the window and picked up her precious little monkey who was now starting wail her head off. Asma took her to the living room and began nursing her child. 

Half hour later when the sun began to rise and her child now asleep in her arms, Asma decided she might as well begin her day. She cooked breakfast and lunch all in an hour. Her husband would be awake any minute now and he would be his restless self. She loved the man she married but the morning was not his finest hour.

With a big sigh she stirred the pot of dal. The kitchen smelled just like her mothers did in the mornings. It had been four years since the accident. Four years since her life had been turned upside down, four years since she lost everything. Four years, and the only thing that remained constant was her mothers dal.

She occasionally flashed back to her pre – Farhan period. She was younger and she was climbing the career ladder like no other. She had her parents by her side and she had Nabeel. Nabeel, that man who stole her heart. She had a perfect, story book life and one day everything came crashing down. The accident, her parents passed away and the she was passed on to her older brothers. They had their own lives and were uncomfortable with the “responsibility”. They didn’t listen to Asma about Nabeel and she was married within six months. She moved to a new city with her new husband and life as she knew it ended.

It took her a long time to get accommodated to this life and still she never felt comfortable in it. Farhan never noticed this. He was a good guy. She loved him adequately. They had a beautiful apartment and a sweet baby. Everything looked great on paper. She had already experienced passion and knew better than to expect that from this marriage. Farhan was always busy, working hard. No time for passion. Weekends were spent shopping, watching TV and playing with the baby. Life was monotonous and Asma was just playing along.

The crying baby jolted Asma to reality. As she ran to attend to her child the cooker whistle went off. So with a child attached to her hip and a ladle in her hand she resigned herself to face the fight with whatever was left within her.

Farhan didn’t say a word at breakfast. Surprise, surprise. Asma was so used to this by now that it didn’t bother her. He washed down his toast with some tea, gathered his things and was almost out the door when suddenly, he caught her eyes.

“Something is different in him today”, thought Asma.

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