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.
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.