9. Hopes, Crushes and Yearnings

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Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said, “Souls are like conscripted soldiers. Those who recognise each other get along well and those who don’t recognise each other do not get along.”

–Saheeh Bukhari & Saheeh Muslim


* * *

Caramel brown orbs.

Eshaal stared at the pair of eyes that were staring right back at her.

Molten caramel.

A sudden realisation of what was happening struck her, and she averted her gaze at the same time he averted his. Her mind was reeling over the powerful sensations that had transpired between the two during the four seconds that they allowed their senses to take over. Strange as it was, the first thought that came to her the moment her eyes met his was that she had known him for a very long time.

What do they call it? Ah, familiarity . . .

She recollected what she had observed about him from under those long eyelashes of hers.

He had clear brown orbs like the colour of molten caramel and wavy jet black hair. His well-defined jaw and short well-kept beard had given off such good vibes, it had been difficult to ignore. There was no doubt that he was tall. His height had been quite evident even when he was seated. From what she had seen before her eyes dropped, he appeared every bit of the definition of handsome desi men. Her heart raced.

Her eyes were still on the floor when someone cleared their throat in the background. It took a few moments for Eshaal’s brain to stop her activity and realise that it was her brother who had done it. The lashes framing her eyes lifted in order to allow her a look at Ibrahim. He sported a look of unease.

“If both of you have stopped staring at the floor, may we proceed with the questioning?” he chimed in, doing very little to hide the effort he was putting in trying to be polite. A grin broke out on her face. That was when Eshaal heard him chuckling for the very first time.

He greeted her. His voice was deep, throaty, and so mesmerising that she felt her goose flesh rise.

A warm fuzzy feeling erupted in her chest, making her stomach flip. Completely contrast feelings attacked her at the same time, making her lose her senses. She could spend the entire day just listening to him greet her. Hold your horses, Eshaal.

Eshaal quickly greeted him back before her thoughts went wayward. She followed Ibrahim and sat down beside him. Silence prevailed for a few moments—so much that Eshaal could hear her father’s booming laughter outside. Seconds ticked.

“So . . . uh, since you know about me and the reason we’ve come here, I guess we could just proceed with the questions. Is it, um, alright?” he asked, sounding unsure of how to begin.

Clearly, he doesn’t have practice in these things.

Eshaal couldn’t understand why that thought set her mind at ease. Calmness surged through her being, bringing back her confidence that betrayed her unceremoniously and had ran away the previous day.

There was momentary silence again, making Eshaal aware that he was waiting for her opinion.

She bit her lip, unsure of how to break the news to him. Her long fingers fiddled with the tassels of her hijab. “I . . . um . . . I actually don’t know anything about you so, . . .” She hesitated.

“We didn’t tell her anything,” Ibrahim came to her rescue, “but I couldn’t deny that she didn’t ask anything either,” he finished. He wriggled his eyebrows at her; and in return, was rewarded with a glare.

“You can spare your brother. It’s alright. I can understand your nervousness.”

Eshaal looked away.

“So, I take it that you don’t know my name too?” The guy prodded and Eshaal shook her head, keeping her gaze on the floor.

“My name is Tanvir.” The tone was drool-worthy. “I’m twenty-six. I work as a manager for an export company. I live in Chennai due to work reasons though my entire family lives in the village. We were . . . uh . . . very close when we were toddlers . . . or that’s what my ammi says.” He grinned, flashing a perfect set of neatly arrayed white teeth just as Eshaal looked up.

“I don’t remember anything,” she admitted.

“Me neither.”

“That’s a relief.” Eshaal let a small smile play on her lips. “So about the questions. Can we begin?”

“Ladies first.”

Ah, that grin again.

“Is that chauvinism I sense here?”

“Ah, no. People call it chivalry.”

“Please don’t assume anything bad because of what I may ask. I just want a few things to be cleared before anything.”

Tanvir nodded, encouraging her to go on.

“What do you want in your future wife? As in, how do you expect her to be?”

“Well, I just have a rough picture on my mind. I’d draw it out for you.” He inhaled, preparing himself. “First of all, I have no expectations for her because I believe expectations only lead to disappointments. I want her to be her own self. I want her to make her own choices. However, I’d be really happy if she is caring and pious, if she doesn’t differentiate between her parents and mine, and if she sticks to what’s right at all times and makes sure she’s upon the correct teachings of Islaam. I’m not looking for beauty that is skin deep. I’m looking for a companion for a lifetime.”

“That’s impressive. Do you pray five times a day regularly, or do you let it go during hectic schedules?”

“I’ve been praying regularly since I was eleven; and, no, I don’t take to missing my prayers lightly.”

“How would you justify your intention?”

“When our family members or friends call, we attend to them immediately, don’t we? I think when the Lord Himself has prescribed timings for me to meet Him, I don’t hold the rank to refuse.”

“Do you think it as a boon or a necessity?”

“Our Lord is sublime. Surely, He doesn’t need us at all. We are the ones who need Him, so I believe that it is a gift to us that we could communicate with Him everyday.”

Eshaal struggled to recollect the questions she had earlier listed out in her head. “Do you participate in masjid halaqas, or do you consider them a waste of your time?”

“I, uh . . .” He hesitated.

“Yes?” Eshaal stressed, urging him to complete his sentence.

“The place where I live has a community center; and I spend my free time there, helping them out with things.”

“Things like?”

“Well, we organise competitions for kids and for non-Muslims, too, so they could get to know about the basic tenets of Islaam. We help out at the orphanage, at the home for the aged nearby whenever we could, and organise mass prayers. That’s about it.”

Eshaal was growing increasingly impressed by the minute. She was fairly certain that his “that’s about it” was a cover for many more works of his. He was sincere. He was modest. Up until now, he was ticking in all the boxes of her mental list. She decided she had to get into more sensitive topics in order to keep her feet on the ground.

“What are your views on polygyny? Will you . . . uh . . . be taking more than one wife?” It was Eshaal’s turn to hesitate now.

“I can sense your insecurity,” he cleared his throat, “but since the topic has been broached, let me put in words . . .” A few seconds passed. “Okay, so,” he started again, “this is a taboo topic according to the world. People think Muslims are insane to be practicing this, but what they fail to realise is that Islaam didn’t introduce polygyny. Many societies whose population weren’t Muslims practiced it too—still practice it, in fact. Islaam only restricted the number of wives men can take—”

“What about certain civilizations who have strictly adhered to monogamy then?” Eshaal interrupted.

“Well, there are countries that do not recognize polygyny but still accept concepts of adulterous relationships. They are okay with a married man having mistresses in a discrete manner or an unmarried man having multiple girlfriends. They support things like live-in relationships where there is no sound commitment—where people can just up and leave, leaving the other partner hanging with baggage or children. I, for one, think it is hypocritical of them to look down upon marriages that protect the interests of women and children when they are fine with people having relationships outside wedlock—be it before or after marriage.

“Besides, it isn’t as if the entire Muslim population practices polygyny. Statistics says that even in Muslim countries, only about ten to fifteen percent of people practice it; and it really comes to rescue in dire situations. Say, for example, in situations where there is a surplus of women or when women are divorced or widowed or even unable to bear children, polygyny solves their issues by sheltering them in legal relationships. Rules and regulations laid about it ensure that women are always given due rights and are treated well. Children, too, born from such marriages have privileges that the ones born out of wedlock do not enjoy.

“And to answer your other question, no. Polygyny is a huge responsibility; and the Qur’aan clearly states that if we fear our Lord and are uncertain about giving equal rights to the women we marry, we should take one and be content. Enough is said about the punishment men face when they fail that. So the answer to your other question is a no, I am not cut out for it. I don’t think I can behave equally with all of them if I take more than one. I will be content with one, In sha’ Allaah.”

“Do you really think that way?”

“I’m afraid  I do.” He chuckled softly.
“Impressive,” Eshaal admitted. A beat again. “Do I take it from your previous answer that you have never . . . erm . . . been in relationships before?” Eshaal struggled to get it out.

“No, it is very unbecoming of a Muslim to be in relationships before marriage; and, no, I wasn’t. I also believe in the lowering of our gaze. Just lost a little control today . . . although, uh . . . we are allowed in this situation . . .” He trailed away.

Eshaal looked up to see his eyes fixed at the window behind her. She knew that he was referring to the way they both were gawking at each other initially. She shyly gazed at her brother, only to find him immersed in listening to something on his earphones.

Eshaal was inflated with pride. Her brother knew just when she needed privacy. He was physically present because this meeting demanded her brother or father to be present; but he had conveniently plugged in his ear phones and tuned himself out of the conversation so he didn’t hear the convo.

Love you, bro! Alhamdulillaah that you didn’t hear this, or you would’ve teased me for life.

“Anything else?” he prodded.

“Uh . . . how did you agree to this meeting?”

“Truth to be told, life was getting a bit lonely. My mom noticed it and recalled your existence though I really had no idea about it.”

Disappointment overwhelmed her when she heard him tell her that. Her face fell but he was quick to notice it.  “I mean I came here out of my own will, be assured. I just didn’t know that this was all planned long before.”

“So you just agreed to what your parents said?”

“They gave me the choice of meeting you and deciding, but they were a hundred percent sure I will agree with it after today.

“Am I making you uncomfortable by being brutally honest?” he added in as an afterthought.

Nahi, I mean, no. I appreciate your honesty. I truly do. It’s just hard to find honest people these days. I guess I haven’t come across much of them lately.” A moment of silence. “Your relationship with your parents—how is that?”

“We’re close, Alhamdulillaah. My entire family is tightly knit. I recognize the blessing that they are in my life.”

Eshaal nodded. “I’m done with my questions.”

“Just these many?” Surprise laced his tone.

“I’ve got all my answers. Can we move on to yours?”

He shrugged, ran his fingers through his short hair, and got up from the cushion chair. “I don’t have any.”
Eshaal was stunned. “You don’t have any?” she asked him to make sure she heard him right.

Tanvir shook his head. “Absolutely none.”

“Weren’t you interested in this meeting?” Eshaal’s heart lodged in her throat. So, she had been building castles in the air so long . . .

He isn’t interested in me. Of course, who would like me? He would go for some model beauty. He is too good to be mine.

Tanvir smiled at her. “I believe I had a very long list. Your list was so short.”

Her gaze swept across the floor. “What happened to it?”

“I saw you, spoke to you, answered your questions, and mine flew out of the window. I don’t find any need to question you now. You’ve answered them all without your own knowledge. Barakallahu feekum for agreeing to meet me.”

Eshaal kept mum, not knowing what to answer. Heat crept across her cheeks. Ibrahim chose that very moment to stand up. “I believe you’ve finished. Let’s get going, man.” He put his hands on Tanvir’s shoulders and, with barely veiled force, directed him to the door. He looked over his shoulder one last time before following Ibrahim out of the room.

Smiling, Eshaal let herself fall back on the bed in the room. Tanvir was too sweet to be real, too pious to be true, and too laid back to be of the practicing kind; yet he existed.

The image of his molten eyes flashed in her mind that moment. She dug her head deeper into the pillow, trying to clear her mind of it. Her pulse raced. She laid there for a long time trying to calm her frenzied nerves.


* * *

She fumbled with the keys, her fingers freezing from the cold. Trying to pick out the right key from among the bunch she held in her hands, she slipped it into the keyhole, twisted the handle, and flung the door open.

The all-too-familiar walls of her empty, desolate apartment greeted her the moment she stepped inside. Without her consent, the warm temperature prevailing inside the place immediately set her tense posture at ease, extracting a sigh of relief from her lips.

Rida loosened her headcover and pressed her back to the door. It had been a particularly rough day for her. She had worked double shifts to cover for Eshaal. There had been a power outage in the middle of a session. The classes had not gone well. The kids had been irritated because the air conditioning didn’t work. A set of stubborn, uncooperative parents had arrived demanding admission for their kids inspite of her taking extreme pains to make them understand they were not taking any more new students for the year. Not willing to listen to her, they had sat down in their lobby and simply refused to evacuate and made a scene instead.

She lifted her eyes to notice the rays of the evening sun streaming into the room through a massive glass window, illuminating the cream-coloured walls and the rich brown furnishing. Her back pressed further into the door as she brought her palms to her face. What she would have given to come to a home that was loud and boisterious instead of this place that was deadly silent.

She swallowed. It steamrolled her again—the fact that she owned the place. Co-owned actually, with a friend she met back at school. A chic three-bedroom apartment in a very fancy part of the city. Like she did many times in the past, she wondered again if her parents would have been proud of what she had become. Would they have been proud of all that she has done?
The throbbing in her head that she had been feeling for the last couple of hours intensified. Her feet took her to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea when she noticed the mess Akshara, her flatmate, had made while trying to cook something.

“Rida, your room is a mess. Toys and books are scattered all over the floor. Go clean it at once.”

“Ma, nooo! I was waiting for this show from noon.”

“I’m not letting you watch it until you clean your room. Give me the remote.”

“Ma, please move out of the way. Let me watch.”

“Rida.”

“Maaa, nooo!”

“I’m ringing your father.”

“Maa, no!”

Rida gasped at the sudden memory that came to the forefront. Her mother had always been a stickler to cleanliness while Rida had been the complete opposite. Had. She smiled ruefully to herself as the waves of memories came upon her.

One after another . . .

She remembered being yelled at. She remembered being hugged. She remembered too many things.

One after another . . .

There was a bittersweet feeling.

One after another . . .

Her throat felt thick.

One after another . . .

Tea forgotten, Rida abruptly changed her course and went to lay down on the sofa instead.

One after another . . .

Her body screamed in pain. Her joints ached. She felt physically—as well as emotionally—drained.

One after another . . .

Settled on the three-seater, her eyes roved over the apartment.

One after another . . .

Her heart clenched with the painful realisation that it was nothing more than a shelter. It was nothing close to a home.

One after another . . .

She noticed the landline blinking. Someone had apparently left a message.

One after another . . .

Deft fingers played the voice message.

One after another . . .

“Aksharaaa.” A shrill voice rang in the air. “You better be on time. How is this going to be a family reunion if you aren’t here? The whole lot are here except for you. Get your butt here quickly . . .”

One after another . . .

“Akshara,” the voice droned on, “your mother is so very angry with you, and she . . .”

And then it came all at once. The waves of memories, crashing and trying to overrule each other—engulfing her, swallowing her whole.

She hastily sprang up to adjust her attire and sprint from the room.


* * *

The wind whistled through the trees, producing a sort of comforting noise as the branches brushed across each other. The chilly weather had driven most of the people out of the park. Rida sat alone, staring at the artificially created pond that was filled with ducks. They swam gracefully in the water, but that wasn’t enough to divert Rida’s attention.

The wind brushed across her cheeks as though it was gently caressing her, pleading with her to not feel dejected. Her scarf flapped frantically in the air, but she sat oblivious to it all.

She stared and stared and stared some more into nothingness. Her tears fell slowly, and she let them fall for once. She was tired of trying to hold them back. She was tired of putting up a brave front.

Without any warning, a tissue was held in front of her. She looked up in surprise.

****

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