Inspired from true events.
Shamim and Fatty pushed each other as they tried to get a good spot on the lower half of the old wooden casements overlooking the main street. It was half-past four in the afternoon and the whole town was under a spell of drowsiness, unwilling to move much in the unbearable heat. Shamim craned her neck to get a better view of the long line of similar-looking colourful mansions on the intersecting roads. The dry winds blew up a little bit of the dust, carrying with it the aroma of the falooda* and bhajiya* and chana bateta* stalls down the road, signalling the beginning of summer vacations. Shamim was dressed in her best pink kurti that day, a colour which brought out the milk-white of her complexion and made her dark eyes glow. She had applied Yardley powder on her face, put kohl in her eyes, and tied her hair into a neat bun. All this preparation had confused most of her brothers and sisters, apart from Fatty, who knew the whole secret.
"Are they going to come?" Fatty asked, looking up at her sister, who was now standing on tiptoes.
"It is about time. They have been coming for the past two days without a hitch."
Sure enough, a few seconds later a group of young men, somewhere in their twenties, sauntered aimlessly in front of their house, carrying a bowl of assorted snacks from the stalls. They seemed to be in a discussion, hovering around the raised pedestal of the nearby peepal tree. At first glance, this would seem like an innocent afternoon walk. But after a while, one of them, a tall, lanky fellow, dressed in a brown shirt and bell bottoms, detached himself from the group. He looked left and right to see if the coast was clear, and then looked up to where the two girls were giggling to each other. His face shone with the brilliance of the sun, and he smiled hugely at her, which she returned with equal splendidness. Quickly, Taha turned away and went back to his friends, while Fatty and Shamim shut the casements.
But both of them knew that with that one look, their fates were sealed. Two days later, a neighbouring lady named Rukhsana visited Shamim's mother, to inform her of the marriage proposal made by Taha's mother. After consulting all the elders of both sides and making the necessary enquiries, the proposal was accepted. Less than two months later, Shamim and Taha were bound as husband and wife.
Shamim was hugging Taha as tightly as she could, crying her eyes out into his brand new checkered shirt, completely ruining the ironing she had done with so much precision. Taha was running his hands gently on the small of her back, trying to comfort her.
"It's all right, it's all right," he kept repeating slowly.
Shamim would not stop bawling, and probably never would have, had they not heard the telltale sounds of Badi Ammi's chappals* on the wooden stairs. Immediately, Taha and Shamim extracted themselves from each other and almost ran to the opposite corners of the room, as if magnets repelling each other. Shamim resumed the packing while Taha straightened up his shirt, removing all evidence of their intimacy.
Badi Ammi came hobbling in, immediately sensing the atmosphere. She decided to ignore it as always.
"Did you pack everything? All the gathias* and khakhras* I ordered for you? Don't you dare distribute it all to your friends! What about the clothes I laundered yesterday? Let me have a look."
She gave a cursory glance through his packed VIP suitcase and gave an approving "Hmmm".
"Oh, my poor son, taking such a long journey all by himself."
Near the front entrance, the autowala honked his horn. Badi Ammi sighed.
"Time to go. Feels like only yesterday you were here. How long is it going to be this time?"
"You know Ma, the usual. I have to stay there for at least two years before I can ask for a leave. At least our seth is kind enough to allow two months to stay at home. I'll try my best to save up for a house and call you there."
"Don't worry about us. We are fine here. You concentrate on your work and become a big man someday."
Taha smiled. At the doorstep, he turned around, looked straight at Shamim and said, "I'll write to you." Badi Ammi went forward, pretending to talk to the autowala, while Taha and Shamim took one last look at each other, trying to commit everything to memory so that the two years spent apart can be a little bit bearable. Both their eyes were filled with the same longing and pain, wanting to reach out and touch each other. Many unspoken words and feelings passed between them, transmitted through their teary eyes. They would have stood there for an eternity, but Taha broke eye contact and sat in his auto, while Shamim turned around and shed more silent tears.
7, Hutton Road, Date-22/12/1993
Asansol - 713301,
"You kept saying that these visits were enough,
I kept crying and telling that the night is still young,
Go, when my tears stop,
The sky opens its heart and shares my grief."
How are you? I hope that this letter finds you in the best of health. The last time you mentioned a little back pain. Why don't you try massaging with Tiger balm? Yesterday's celebrations went quite well. I could not write the past few days because I was too tired after the delivery, but I have read and kept all your letters, which I will be replying to soon. Our son was named Ali, after the great Caliph. Everyone was quite pleased with the name, even your mother. She keeps telling everyone that he looks exactly like you, and I quite agree, although I do feel that he has got some of my chin and ears. The doctor was so pleased when he came out, a good four kilos! I will never forget that day though. I was afraid that I would have to deliver him at home! There was nothing available outside, what with the curfew starting, not a single auto to be found. I was so relieved when one of the polis* agreed to help us and take us to the hospital. Ammi and Abbu came walking later, and I went with Abbas Bhai in the polis car. I was screaming with pain. Thank Allah though, Ali did not take too long to leave me, and I was released back home after two hours. Abbas Bhai had to pay them some money, but the polis was very helpful since they knew Abbu well. We even called them yesterday to the naming ceremony, but they refused as they were on duty. We could not invite a lot of people though, as it had to be kept after curfew hours, but at least Rukhsana Masi and a few others did manage to come. We called your cousin, Ruby, to name Ali, and she was quite ecstatic about the whole thing because this was the first time someone had given her such a responsibility. You should have seen how Musa pranced around his little brother, so happy to finally meet someone whom he could play with the whole day! He looked so wonderful too, in the clothes that Abbas Bhai bought from Dubai and his colourful cap. I was afraid that he might throw a tantrum, but he was such an angel, helping his Nani and the rest of the guests.
We gave everyone sweets from Abbu's shop, and samosas* and chana bateta* made by Makla uncle*. It was delicious. Last night we were missing you very much. Everyone was asking me why you couldn't make it on time, but I know that you would have never missed it had it not been for your work. I think it's time that we settle down somewhere together. My eyes are tired now, searching for you every day, waiting for you to return. Seven years we have spent apart, but I cannot take it anymore. Your children need their father too. Please think about my words and about me-just like I do about you.
With lots of love,
P.S. The photos from yesterday have not developed yet, so I'll be sending them in the next letter.
Musa and Ali got down from their school bus and ran up to their waiting mother near their apartment door, arms spread out wide. Every day she would wait for her children to run towards her, and every day their delight in seeing her would bring a smile on her lips too. They would be so overjoyed to see her as if meeting after a long separation, even though it was just a few hours. Hadn't she done the same thing for years? Every day she counted her blessings and thanked Allah for giving her the courage to write to Taha about living together. That one letter had made her husband immediately give in to her request and make arrangements for her children and herself to stay with him. Taha's business was running so well, and there was nothing that he wouldn't do for her. She had never realised this, but Taha was always ready to fulfil her every wish. If she had asked for it sooner, she would have never had to spend so many years apart from him, agonising over his every letter.
The separation had been painful, yes, but the meeting after each gap had been filled with more and more love, so much so that every time Taha would stay back a little longer than he intended. She giggled at her children's silliness, dragging them both into her neat and well-maintained house. It was smaller than she was used to, and had nothing of the Gujarati charm that her old house had held, but her touch had made it into a home. She sometimes missed her old place, with Badi Ammi croaking about it all-day while she went about her chores. She used to give her a hard time, but somehow she still thought about that old crone, may Allah bless her soul.
Bengal was a completely different atmosphere altogether, but she had adjusted to it somehow. It was nothing like her old city, she hardly knew anyone, not even her neighbours, and spent most of her time at home, looking after her little family. Taha was busy all through the week, but he made sure to plan their Sundays. Most of them would be fishing trips to the nearby lakes, or the beach in the next city. Sometimes they would hop for movies, even travel to Kolkata to watch in one of the better theatres like Metro. She had made peace with the fact that this was her new bliss, and that getting to live with Taha was all she ever wanted. She had a loving husband and two beautiful boys, and that was good enough for her.
She was just warming up some milk to give her children when the doorbell rang.
"Ammi, it's Abbu!!!" shouted her sons in unison. She switched off the stove and hastily walked out, completely baffled by her sons' announcement. The last time he had come this early, it was because there was a call from Sidhpur saying that her mother-in-law had passed away. They had had to rush to finish her funeral rites. Her thoughts immediately went to her mother, and she prayed that it was not her this time. She collided with Taha near the door and looked at him hastily. He immediately sensed the urgency in her eyes and smiled. The hammering of her heart slowed down and she felt calm.
"Why are you home so early today? Is everything alright at the shop?"
"Yes, everything is fine. I took a special leave today to come home. Here, I bought you some flowers."
Although still worried, Shamim couldn't help smiling to herself as she took the flowers from his hands. Whatever the situation be, every time he came Taha would always bring something for her or the boys. It was these little things that made him more lovable.
"I want to talk to you. Send the children away, " he said.
Her heart started hammering again.
"What is this about?" she tried to keep her fear from her voice.
"You remember our cousin Ruby, who has been married in Vizag?"
"Yes, did something happen to her?" she could no longer suppress it.
"No, no everything is fine. I got a letter from her husband last week. I didn't tell you about it because I didn't want you to worry. We have been talking about this idea for a long time. He wants to set up a new business in Vizag, and he wants me to join him as a partner. It's similar to what we sell here, so he knows I know. Think about it, it will be a good opportunity for us. We will live amongst our people, our children can learn more about our own culture. We are so isolated here, even you……."
But Shamim had already started overflowing with tears before Taha could complete his words.
"No, no, no, I will not agree to this. You mean to send us back to Sidhpur while you work there."
"Think about it. I will be my boss. I can come and go whenever I want."
"I don't care!"
"It's a big city, we'll have a better future."
"We are fine here!"
"Our children are fine! Why are you doing this to me?!"
Taha looked into Shamim's eyes and saw something he did not expect, dread. She dreaded losing him again, that she'll have to depart and see him once a year.
"You don't know..., what it's like..., to wait…"
Taha held both her hands in his and said,
"Have we not suffered enough together? Do you still believe that any amount of distance can separate us?"
Shamim looked up at him, trying to find the strength it would take to uproot and separate again. It would be much longer and arduous this time. She did not know if she could survive it this time.
The whistles blasted as the train left the station, first chugging slowly and then gaining speed. Shamim stood nervously on the platform, trying to clutch at a lot of things together; her dupatta, her children and her handbag. This was the first time that she had ever travelled alone, and it had taken her all the courage that she could muster to make such a big decision. This time though, she was going to do it anyhow. She was no longer going to stay at her father's home, no longer going to listen to the taunts of her sister-in-laws' about living off her brothers. Taha had promised her that he would call her back within a few months, once he settled down in the new city and things got going. But the months had turned into years, and after three years of incessant pleading and appealing, she had finally decided to take action. Without informing anybody, she had travelled from Sidhpur to Vizag and had determined that she was going to stay with her husband no matter what.
Outside the station, she hailed an auto, showed him the address on the paper, and bundled her children into it. There was a song playing in a strange language on the radio, and the winds were filled with a salty twang, quite unlike the dry ones she was used to. She looked about her with uncertainty, not sure what she was going to do once she reached the place. She tried to go over in her mind the things which she was going to say him, trying to remember the determination which had brought her here, but the panic in her heart would not subside. What would he say? What if he got mad with her for coming all this way? What if her doubts had been unfounded?
No, she had to steel herself against the inevitable. She had taken a decision, and she was going to see it through. Presently the auto stopped and she stepped out. It was a commercial area, with rows and rows of various goods shops. After making enquiries at one of them, she located the exact place where she was supposed to go. The sight which greeted her was not a pleasant one. She had expected to see a thriving business, overflowing with customers, but this was the exact opposite. The shop was being emptied of all it's goods while Taha stood at the side, gazing with worry and dejection. She stood there for a few moments, taking it all in, and then stepped forward and called Taha.
When their eyes met, all the years melted away, and they were back on the same road, with Shamim on the window and Taha stealing glances from below. But for the first time, Taha's eyes were filled with shame. One look from her completely broke him.
"I am so sorry, I have failed you." Both of them burst into tears, right there on the street, in front of their sons.
"It's all right, it's all right," Shamim tried to console him.
"What are we going to do now? We have nothing left. No house, no work, no money. It's a disaster."
"Don't be dejected. It's the way of life. We are together now, that is all that matters. We will work hard, we will rebuild ourselves. If we do this together, we can make it through anything. We have spent all these years apart trying to make our lives better. Now we have to try to do it together."
Taha looked up, and they both smiled.
chana bateta, falooda, bhajiya, khakhra, gathiya, samosa- Gujarati delicacies
Makla uncle- the owner of the snacks stall
polis men- police men
Zainab M. M. is a part-time writer and a full-time mom, both jobs she loves to the dearest. An introvert by nature, good books and good music are food for her soul. Loves to travel, and hopes to one day visit London and touch the graves of the greatest writers buried there! Secretly wishes to one day be good enough to win a Nobel Prize.
Be sure to follow her on: