It was a secret both of them had guarded closely. Nobody knew about it, not even the nosiest neighbours. She marvelled at how they had managed to keep their relationship private, given the ubiquitous influence they had in the society. But they had succeeded because it was an unspoken pact between them, an oath never really taken. It had mattered too much and they had valued what they had shared.
Time elapsed and so did their untagged, unnamed, unspoken relationship. Perhaps it was just an emotional fling for both of them, but she hadn’t yet forgotten him. She could not. It was as if the fugitive never sought to be extradited, the refugee never wanting to come back to his homeland even after the storm has subsided. A denial so inherent and so rare, that her fragile mind couldn't fight her stubborn heart.
She had wanted to of course! Especially, after she got married; when they willingly parted their ways to live different lives.She knew she had to abjure him from the plethora of emotions she had been undergoing since the day they parted their ways. But often, the memories of Ayaaz paid random visits to her for many years after her marriage.
“Ayaaz” and “Aayat” how perfectly these two words blended with each other, sometimes she wondered. But now, it was just like a pleasured guilt that she always loved to recollect. She used to recall those moments of past and muse at herself. Shamefully, but yes! with true longingness.
Sitting under the sunlight, in the midsummer afternoon with her little daughter playing around, she smiled at herself. Smile at the irony that life was throwing at her. “Life” has what had happened to her in these few years of her life. Years have passed, yet today the sudden fragrance of lily brought back those memories to her.
Being a mother of a seven-year-old and a married woman for ten years by now; for her, it was just a longing and nostalgia for the intensity of an ardour once experienced and then lost for good somewhere in her young adulthood.
Ten years have passed and she still missed that touch and the warmth of those eyes that lingered over her body once. Those strong smells of lilies that usually emanated from his body due to the “ittar” he used to apply nauseated her every other time he used to come near her. The bodily stench being a mixture of sweat and ittar always captivated her; a pungent odour that she terribly missed now. To distract her own self, she now looked at her daughter, playing innocently in the swing next to her. She smiled at her and in return, she smiled back.
Seven years ago, it was one of these midsummer days that he visited. Absolute lonesome days it was. Her husband Rizwan was out for some business purpose, leaving her with a virtually mute maid and a little kitchen garden that she had nurtured the day she arrived in the house.
Rizwan was a good man, a perfect groom, a perfect son, a perfect employer. In short a perfect gentleman that every girl must have aspired for in her dreams. But for her, he was not the one that her heart desired. It’s not that she never tried; it’s not that she never gave an effort. But Rizwan was an ambitious clod, an egregious-obstinate fellow seldom caring about others emotions. He was a besotted fool and a gullible dolt when it came to love making. For him, marriage was only a legal bond meant for producing legitimate heirs.
It was one of those touring days of his when he used to leave Aayat with those two assets of theirs or better say hers; the garden and the maid. The midsummer afternoon had already taken its toll and had lulled the otherwise noisy posh residential colony of hers. It was one of those times when the sounds of water cooler dominated the afternoon’s deafening silence and all those gossip aunties are found asleep in their air conditioned chambers.
Aayat was observing the lush beauty of her balcony plants. The creepers had started to overhang from the small edge in the corner when the same familiar fragrance engulfed her. She was blindfolded by a familiar hand. The stench and the roughly surfaced palms were enough to let her know and for the first time in those sneaky, guilt visits of his she couldn’t suppress her urge to kiss his bare hands.
Certainly, it awed him and before he could open his mouth, she pressed her lips against his. Slowly, she undraped her saree and let his hand move over her bare body. It was something irresistible, something sort of true divination that she felt after years of lonesomeness. It felt as if two souls blended into one, intermingling with each other. His restless and darting eyes caressed her whole body, roaming...straying and revealing all at the same time. She tasted him and delicately put her hand around his torso lending him the full acceptance of her body. Two souls long lost somewhere were now lost in each other.
The afternoon had subsided; evening sun lurked around the corner and then there was a sudden knock on the door. The un- occasional maid had arrived and it was time for him to bid farewell; a farewell to leave forever with an untold goodbye and with a present to always treasure.
A leaf fell; someone jolted down from the swing and rushed towards her lap with a thud. “Be careful” was only she could utter. “For you are my only treasured present” she muttered under her breath.
"However, you aren't invisible; going incognito doesn't hide your browsing from your employer." Sitting at my office desk, I stared at the warning on the screen for full 2 minutes, giving it a fair chance to make me feel guilty but here I am, already typing "D.I.Y bookshelves" on YouTube.
Having already met the target I, a 29 year old sales manager at 'Click InfoTech' was a free man for the day. Now "Freedom" in a corporate setup is a bit illusionary; we the corporate slaves use the term more casually than it deserves to be used. Our boss not being around, loosening up the tie knot is freedom for us, switching from Excel sheet to Facebook as soon as the supervisor leaves is a self-proclaimed freedom for us, and to a layman's surprise sometimes even being able to place a logical opinion on the table is a revolutionary freedom for us.
However, making the most out of this well-deserved freedom, I went on reading blogs after blogs. I occasionally shifted my eyes to check the time. "15:35" is how a normal person would see it; however, for me it was "25 minutes to Cigarette break".
My cigarette break was the most reviving part of my day. I looked forward to it like a school kid looks forward to recess. Not being an active smoker, "A Cigarette break" was quite a symbolic term in my glossary, it stood for anything and everything that helps a person unwind or escape. It can be a trip, a party or a book for a few, and some might find their job to be a cigarette break, probably because they enjoy it so much. For me, my cigarette break was a person, a new friend that I had found in a colleague.
It was time to catch up with her as my clock struck "0 minutes to cigarette break"
"Why cigarette break though? Why can't I be something more substantial? I mean I am not even a cigarette but a cigarette break" she complaints.
"The only purpose of its life is to burn out at the desire of others, how does it make you want to be compared to a cigarette?" I ask.
"At least people have a hard time abandoning it" she complements it with an eye roll.
I smile at how perfectly women master the art of rolling eyes, "If I ask you to smoke a cigarette sitting on the same desk where you have been working for 4-5 hours, will it still be as refreshing?"
"Not really, it's nice having this little free time" she confesses.
"Exactly, so if you think about it, it's not the cigarette that is addictive but the cigarette break".
"You are very convincing" she says.
"No doubt they have me in the sales department" I smirk.
We laugh our way back to our desks.
You know that feeling, when after a weekend it's Monday again? Yeah, i live that Monday every time that i have to return to my desk. It is so cold here, figuratively, everybody, they care so little about what is going on with you that them asking "What's Up?" makes me want to laugh it off. You could be dying of loneliness, or be battling the most severe issues, but the desk next to you will be comfortably unaware of it. Thank God for that little window of 20 mins, that is everything that keeps me from suffocating.
"Can we please not discuss work right now? We call it a 'break' for a reason" clearly pissed, I taunted.
She was a bit taken aback, "Okay i am sorry. Why does even a slight mention of work make you so uneasy? You are so good at your work, do you not enjoy it?"
"Who doesn't enjoy taking home a good pay every month? It surely is a rewarding job, but only if you measure rewards in terms of money." i stop to light up another cigarette "this job, this setup, this is everything that i have loathed as a child and made fun of as a teenager, yet here i am the prisoner of my own fate".
We are interrupted by a new intern as he has to ask for my suggestion on which phone he should buy. The fact that he did not even ask for her suggestion made me realise how we as a society is still defeated by our stereo typical ideas, Be it our assumption on how a woman might not be the best person to talk technology. The thought escaped quickly like the fugitive effect of light. We are often enraged about the actual issues and think of all the ways we would want to introduce a change, but Of course, our mind conveniently gives room to more entertaining thoughts, while our mini-revolution digs its own grave.
"Okay, this is my third attempt at asking you out, there is this new cafe around the corner, maybe we can try it out today after the shift?"
She stares at me and says nothing, just smirks a little.
"That is not even an answer, Come on, do you realise it would mean we can talk for longer than 20 mins?" I give it my last shot.
"You want to extend this time with me? I thought you come here because of the lack of options" She answers it with a question, why did i even expect anything else?
"It's beautiful, everything about this time. This conversation with you is everything that keeps me sane in this maddening world", words flow as i give in to the overwhelming realisation.
I am surprised she doesn't smile to that.
"Don't you fear that i might just run away with all your secrets?", she decides to ditch the 2nd cigarette today.
"What's there to fear? If you run away with my secrets, i will be relieved of their burden, and also it doesn't surprise me anymore. People leave all the time"
"You say that with such ease, what about the void they create? How do you fill that? "Sceptical, she asks.
"The void never really fills; we just become comfortable with our empty spaces".
It is only after i return to my desk that i realise, i couldn't get an answer out of her. It's something else; these 20 mins they make me explore my parallel universe. The urge to keep her around is so overpowering that I wish to carry a part of her back to my desk.
I waited for her after my shift, but after an hour of waiting my sensible-self abjured the hope, and i left. Maybe that is how things are supposed to be, me, her, our cigarettes and those 20 mins that we share. Although, we humans have a bad habit of wanting for more and in the attempt we gamble away what we already have. After that day i never tried to turn this cigarette break into dinner dates and cafe hangouts.
"Look who is accusing me of being a dreamer" she teases me, in her playful voice.
"What? At Least i have my one foot in reality, unlike you" i narrow my eyes, " and besides, i don't see having a surreal world running for you as a bad thing, i can do whatever i wish to do and be whatever i desire, everything that would cost me too much in this world".
"I am amused how you have an answer to every possible question, anyway I know i am a great company to have, but it's really time you return to your desk" she says, ditching all the rules of modesty.
"Return to desk", how symbolic!It stood for every walk in my life that i had to take reluctantly. It won't be wrong if i say, i have become a reluctant person in general. I remember how a few years younger me; had an untouchable zest for life, but i guess a new city can break your spirit into million pieces without you even knowing it. Day after day, I have given into the mediocrity of life, and have somehow managed to be tamed by the routine.
It kills me, the thought of how out of all the people, I am the one that is leading this life, me, the school's most eminent guy, the cousin everybody would drag into the limelight at any family event, the kid, everybody knew would make his parents proud. Well, i have made them proud, it's only me that i have let down. "Must be the universe plotting revenge" I say, to save myself from the self-loathing
Cigarette Break #5
"I always wonder if i really like your company or i am tired of having so little human contact" I say teasingly
"Well, whatever the reason, it is working in my favour" she replies casually "but on a serious note, why do you not try to make some friends and socialise a bit?"
I throw her my sarcastic look, "Wow, what a new suggestion. You think i did not try? When i first came to this place, i was so keen on making friends that i used to go out of my way to be nice".... "But this place, these people, they are all like a hollow log, they would conveniently float on your kindness without ever drowning in the depths of you. I don't even remember having a real conversation with anybody in this town, the closest I got was to being persecuted for my ideas".
She looked at me, her eyes were comforting and but not at all sympathetic. Maybe that is the reason i can talk to her so easily, she never makes me feel like she is sorry for me, she makes it simple for me.
It never occurred to me until today that she never talks about her other friends. Is she afraid it might make me feel bad for not having any friends of my own and hurt my fragile human ego as a result? Or is she lonely too, just like me but is too strong to say, or probably i don't make her feel as comfortable as she does to me.
Only after parting with my thoughts I realised that I was probably the object of discussion for two colleagues, two desks away from me. Why else will they be occasionally checking me out? Anyway, i get that a lot these days. I think of it as a ubiquitous response you get when you spend most of your time with a girl, and you suddenly become the gossip. I choose to ignore them and got back to my work.
"You think we should ask him to see a help? Or just give him a card or something?" The guy two desks away ask.
"You must be stupid; you never tell a retard that he is a retard" the other guy replies.
"Retard is a strong word, i guess"
"Are you serious? He blabbers to a wall all the time during cigarette breaks, how much more mind he needs to lose before we call him a retard?"
A plethora amount of pain, anger, helplessness & disgust all started making me numb. After rewinding last few hours of my life over hundred times, every emotion in me started to fade away. I walked across the street of Kashmir like a nomad. The numbness of my mind crept its way to my body. Blood and fluid were dripping down my thigh. When numbness overpowered my body, I collapsed on the street. I woke up in a hospital after two days. What could have been my worst nightmare has become my reality. I was debased. I was violated. I was raped. His hedonist eyes, swarthy skinned hand on my breast, his crooked teeth biting my skin, all those sensations rushed my brain but a needle of anesthesia brought numbness back again and I went back to sleep.
In the hiemal month of December where it was snowing outside in Kashmir, when all one could do was, stuff oneself inside heap of blankets, my mother was screaming and sweating out of pain. I was born. My father named me Shireen; meaning white as the snow outside. I was a pampered child, soft and fragile for my age. But, Kashmir was no place to be fragile and timid. I wish I had known this before. I wish my parents taught me how to be strong. Growing up in valley was beautiful, with scenic view, small house and loving family, you couldn't have asked for more. As long I recall I was in love with embroidery work. I watched my mother do it and soon started doing it myself. By the time I was fifteen I excelled in it.
My parents were ideal couple, for the love they shared was immense but more than that the respect they had for each other was something that I admired. Father always appreciated his better half for even a minor effort she took for him. He called her 'babyjaan'. I dreamed of having something of this sort in my life too. My mother ran a small business in which she did embroidery on dress material and sold them. I wasto my father. I was fond of him. His calm and gregarious nature. His cute dimpled smile. I was his entire world. We used to sit and talk for hours in the backyard almost every evening.
After I completed my studies, I started working as an elementary school teacher. It was great to work at school but what I enjoyed the most was helping my mother in her business. I would spend hours working on different designs without realizing that the clock is ticking. Time passed slowly in Kashmir and soon I was eligible to get married. Like every young girl, I dreamt of the day I would get married. I used to put up different dupatta and a fake hair braid and would imagine different ceremony. When the idea of marriage popped up in real life, I felt anxious. But he made all anxiety go away. Shashank, the day I met him, I knew that my fear was unnecessary. Out first meeting convinced me that I will have a happy life with him. And those dreams, my childhood dream of having someone like my father was to mother will come true.
Preparation caught pace. A day before wedding, father came to my room. He saw me smiling and giggling at my mehndi. The moment I looked at him, tears rolled down his cheek. I ran and hugged him. I knew I was going to miss him the most.
Life was beautiful after marrying Shashank. He was a true gentleman. Like my father he encouraged me with my embroidery skills and pushed me to work on it full time. But I loved working in school too. Hence, I juggled my time between school and embroidery work. The juggle proved beneficial for my work as many of my student's mothers became my clients. They would encircle me after school as if I was some eminent personality and would place orders.
Begum Ashna was my regular client, only if I knew I would have to pay heavy price of knowing her. She was wife of the egregiously powerful leader Asad Ahmed Khan. Every single person in the town knew him and was afraid to talk to him. He abjured female existence. He would kidnap them and marry them against their will. Once a newspaper article read how he fled to Pakistan and was extradited for murder charges.
Begum Ashna was out of town and had me deliver her order at home. An ordinary day turned into the most fateful day of my life. After what he did to me, I was left with two options. Either be fugitive and never tell anyone about what happened or file a complaint against him. I had lot to figure. Think about my mother who was left alone after my father passed away, think about Ashna Begum whose eyes still didn't believe the horror deeds of her husband. I had to think about Shashank who accepted me, supported me and took care of me even after whatever happened.
I opted for third option...
It is breezy here today. I am standing in front of your grave, like in childhood, when I use to learn something new, I would come to you to tell you. Today, I learnt something new. I learnt to overcome the ubiquitous fear. I learnt how be strong. I learnt how to punish. I learnt to take revenge. I learnt to play with strings of life and how to cut them to end them it forever. I killed. I killed Asad Ahmed Khan. Your snow white has stained her hands with blood. No more a timid father. I am no more fragile but in all this maybe I lost Shireen.
Leaving this letter on his grave away, not knowing where go. Maybe I was still a fugitive.