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Zoya

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 Sunlight filtered in, forming a dotted block of colour on the dusty floor of the local train compartment. I stood at the entrance, watching a million shades whiz pass my eyes, like an impressionist’s version of a landscape. My nose was filled with the faint stench of dirty socks, and my ears with the buzz of babbling mouths that surrounded me. A buzz that was faint, yet so clear and so different from the constant silence that surrounded me, engulfed me in its invisible cocoon. The silence that never seemed to leave me, not even when I was happy: when I was with Aamir.

Happy, I thought to myself. Maybe Aamir hadn’t been clear about it, but after yesterday I had a clearer perspective about where our ‘happy’ relationship was going. “C’mon Zoya,” he’d said. “Give me the damn story quickly. Even I have deadlines you know. I need to stop getting distracted and concentrate on work, and in fact, so do you” he’d finished, hanging up on me and leaving behind the constant beep of the dial tone. When had things started to go so wrong between us? Or when had I, for that matter, even stopped thinking of my relationship with Harsh? Harsh the man I was supposed to be with in mind, body and soul. The man who was my husband had whom I’d married on this very day, exactly 13 years ago. “And now there’s nothing left,” I thought to myself, tasting my salty tears as they touched my lips…I was helpless and Harsh didn’t want to help…Harsh, the man who had intimidated with his intelligence in our first meeting; impressed me with his confidence in the second, and wooed me persistently after that. Not that the wooing was needed. To a naïve 18 year old, whose world was limited to her galli in Allahabad, Harsh was a man of the world. He had an opinion on everything from world politics to the economy, from history to religion, philosophy and cinema. To me, a girl whose interests lay only in Hindi literature and poetry, he was unique, a man who believed only in that which he wanted to, who didn’t hesitate in breaking the rules. Even the boundaries of religion that stood between us, seemed weak and hazy to him, and I wanted to believe his convictions.

“Allahabad is too small a town to understand me, my dreams and our relationship, we need to escape Zoya” he’d say. I’d blindly agree, I always did…after all hadn’t he seen more of the world than me? He’d studied in Delhi and London, and worked in Bombay for over 3 years. He’d said that Bombay was the city of dreams, of everyone’s dreams…and the sanctuary of ours. And so we fled, into the big bad world in the middle of the night, and straight to Bombay.

The train lurched to a halt, and I was abruptly jerked out of my reverie. Next to me a girl spoke softly over the phone “Yes sweety, I’m coming, I know I promised not to be late for the show….” “Don’t be late Zoya, the show starts sharp at six,” yelled Harsh from the hall. “Yes I’ll be there. Now go drop Kabir off, he’s getting late for school” I said, rolling my eyes at my husband’s bossy beahviour. “How were the parathas? Fine, right?” I asked clearing up the last of the dishes from the table. “Yeah they were fine. I’ve been eating them for years now so I obviously like them, don’t I. Okay, bye!” he dismissed me, opening the door and putting an abrupt end to our conversation. “Wait! Wait! I’m coming. Have you taken you’re Chavanprash and pills” I asked my husband, handing over his suitcase.  “Yes!” he snapped. “Can we leave now?”

“Sorry, sorry.” I mumbled as I gave my son a tight hug, straightening out his already mussed hair. “Bye baby” I said. They say a mother senses danger for her child. It is her maternal instinct. I had been a mother too, so where was my maternal instinct that day, I wondered. Why hadn’t I been able to sense the danger? Or was it that only good mothers had this ability. But, hadn’t I been a good mother? Then why had I let Kabir go? Why had I let his tiny fingers slip through mine, why hadn’t I held on? God, they say, has a way of springing surprises on people, and that day was my turn. My Allah let me down for the first time.

I pulled out a cigarette and held it to my lips with shivering hands. Inhaling deeply, I let the intoxicating flavour fill my lungs, but now, even years later it did nothing to diminish the pain of that grotesque memory. Kabir never came back that. The school bus was set aflame in broad daylight that day, the 19th of December ’92, in the middle of a crowded street, by a group of religious fanatics. The only person who survived was the bus driver. “Main kya karta madam? Mere ko to apna family ka bhi sambhalna than na.” (What could I do? Even I have a family to look after), the coward told us. For him and the rest of the city it was just the beginning of an all consuming devastation, for me, it was the end of my world. And neither Harsh nor I realized when the grieving silence solidified itself into aN unyielding barrier between us, when it ate through our marriage.

I was reduced to a broken heap, sobbing endlessly and praying all the time, Harsh had become numb, emotionally stagnant and completely unaffected by human warmth, especially my touch. Ammi and Abbu had never completely forgiven me for my elopment with Harsh, and all they could give me was the love and sympathy they felt for their dead grandchild. What I needed from them, was understanding, But I couldn’t ask for it, and they couldn’t perceive my silence.

Gradually I came to terms with the fact that Harsh blamed me for our son’s death. I consoled myself that it was easier for him to blame me, a Muslim with a face than to blame a faceless mob for our gross misfortune.

For the first time after our marriage, I became conscious of the fact that I was a Muslim, and maybe even a little ashamed of it. Harsh never ranted or raved. His regret instead reflected itself in his hostile silence, and he wounded me with invisible scars. There were no questions when he went away on his business trips for weeks together. No questions when he split our joint bank account. Not even when I started hearing all about his affairs with other women at his workplace did I ask him anything. I stopped asking questions because I stopped expecting answers and it was this silence that ate through our friendship, our love and our marriage.

A loud whistle sliced through the silence as the local came to a halt. Feet shuffled in and out, but a pair of feet refused to move. As my blurred vision cleared I saw that that pair of feet was mine. It was time to get off, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t make myself get off and go back to the brick and mortar structure that we pretended to call home. It was a sham! It was all a sham, our home our marriage, everything. And I was sick of it, I thought to myself angrily. Our marriage was nothing but a smooth mechanical function, meticulously planned and well executed, but emotionally dead from within. And three pitiful lives lived under its spell, Harsh, me and our god damn silence!

It was the same routine everyday. Even today Harsh would be home at half past eight. An hour later dinner would be laid on our teakwood table, rajma chawal since it was a Wednesday night. At half past nine he’d be done and switch on the plasma to watch the daily news. I’d join him when I’d finished clearing the table. At 10 he’d get up, switch off the television and walk into our room. I’d follow him in, change and lie down in bed, with the silence and incessant humming of the air conditioner buzzing in my ears. The silence always drummed loudly in my ears, bouncing and echoing off the pristine white walls of our home, it was my only companion in my house. But never did it surround me as tightly as it did in this room, night after night when I lay next to Harsh. Each night with a flick of a switch the lights went out, and the streetlight outlined his smooth sharp profile, and his slightly crooked nose, as he lay next to me, on the other side of the bed.

My station had passed long ago, but I moved on in the train, not prepared to get off and go anywhere. As I sat on the cold seat and gazed outside, our tiny tin box on wheels was engulfed by a pitch dark void that swallowed it whole. It was a rare occasion for me to be out and about at night. But Harsh was out of town so there was nothing much to do at home. “Sana, please tell me if I’m looking fat in this dress. And what about my hair and make up, is it looking fine or am I looking overdone?” I asked my childhood friend. “Relax Zo, we’re going to meet Aamir, not the Prime Minister of India. You’ll be fine. And overdone? Please. I keep telling you to stop wearing these old lady pastels. They’re so dull and drab” she admonished me. “You,” I started…“Yeah, yeah I know, you’ve told me this only about a thousand times in the last thirteen years. Harsh likes you in pastels, but please you can wear other colours too.” I laughed as my friend pulled a face, and gave her a big hug. I truly didn’t know what I’d do without her. It was she who had jolted me out of my misery. She’d forced me to stop wallowing in self pity, and start looking for a purpose in life.“I’m happy at home, and besides I don’t even think I’d be able to work anywhere. Who’d employ a college dropout?” I’d asked.

“C’mon Zo. So what if you’re a college dropout? You’re an amazing writer. Need I remind you of the number of prizes you’ve won in school and college for your short stories and poetry? Besides Hindi language writers are in demand today.” And on and on she’d gone, pestering me till at last I’d agreed and here we were today. I was going to meet Mr. Aamir Sheikh, an assistant creative director with Contessa films, a television production house. “Television is good money Zo, and it’ll work wonders for your confidence. It’ll show you that you can still write. Trust me Zo, this opportunity can change your life” Sana had predicted.

And little did we know that she was foreseeing my future. Meeting Aamir did change my life completely. What had started as a professional relationship was now my new lease of life. Aamir had become the voice that broke into my silence, a mirage to my lost voyager’s eyes and a support to my broken soul, or had he? The train came to an abrupt halt and I looked up. “Chalo Madam. Last station hai,” (it is the last station) said a tiny beggar boy, as he jumped out onto the platform.

I quickly got off and got into a local on the opposite platform, waiting for it to start, just as I’d always waited for everything in life; love, acceptance and a little attention.

Was I expecting too much? Should I be happy with getting what the two men in my life were capable of giving me? Was I asking for more than what I deserved? I was pushed into the corner of my seat and had to shield my eyes against the fiery vermilion of the setting sun. I recalled last evening, when the sun had been just as blinding…Light flooded the room as the curtains swished open; I sat up and looked at Aamir who was all ready to leave. “Can’t you stay a bit longer? We never meet for more than an hour or two. There’s so much that I need to talk to you about,” I asked, clutching the cotton bed sheet. “Zoya, sweetie, you know how much work I’ve got. I mean you know I’m working my ass off to get that promotion and yet I make time out to meet you almost everyday. Now suddenly you’re saying you want more time to talk? Be reasonable darling. Besides you have to work on that story too, remember?” he asked, quickly stuffing his wallet into his trouser pocket.

“I’m sorry” I mumbled, quickly slipping into my salwar kameez , and twisting my hair around to pin it up. “It’s okay” Aamir said with a slight smile. “By the way did I tell you that you’re looking amazing today?” he added.“Yes, as a matter of fact you told me that just 15 minutes ago.” I said, smiling at his compliment and thinking how he always knew what to say to me. Then why doesn’t he say what you want to hear? Why doesn’t he say he loves you, my mind retorted, even as I quickly put away these questions to the back of my mind.Looking back I realized that this is what I’d always done. I’d always pushed back and suppressed the voice that demanded a logical explanation for my warped relationships. Getting up, I pushed my way through the colourful mob of women. I needed to stand at the door to clear my head, to get a clearer perspective of my thoughts.

I’d always thought that I had been very lucky as far as Harsh was concerned. Why else would attract a mature and confident man like him be attracted to an immature, average- looking, eighteen year old girl. And then there was Aamir, he worked for television and could easily get his share of good looking, twenty- something, size zero women. Why then, was he hanging around a plump, 31 year old housewife, who was nothing more than an amateur writer?

As the train jerked to a stop, I was suddenly pushed out by a wavelike mob of abusing women, trying to claw their way in and out of the train. “Damn!” I thought, as I stubbed a toe and was thrown onto the platform. I looked around and realized that I was at Byculla station. On an impulse, I started climbing the station bridge, instead of getting into a local home, as I should have done. Glancing at the station clock, I saw that it was 7p.m.

“I should have been home by now preparing dinner, but with the mood I was in, I’d have probably burnt the kitchen down,” I thought to myself with a grim smile.

As I got out of the station, I took in the festive mood of the area around me. That’s when I remembered…tomorrow was Eid. Kabir would have been ten this Eid, and we all would’ve been celebrating with Ammi and Abbu in Allahabad. But ever since his death Harsh refused to celebrate Eid. He never said anything to me, but after two years of going alone even I’d stopped celebrating. Besides I felt like I was betraying my son’s memory, whenever I celebrated without him. But we’d still pretend to celebrate Diwali with Harsh’s family, but not Eid anymore. Was this his way of punishing me for being a Muslim? Probably, I thought. As I was lost in my thoughts, the smell of freshly fried sevaiya reached my nose, and I looked up. I saw a father and daughter standing next to his cart; tears filled my eyes as I remembered how Abba used to take my brother and I to eat delicacies after I broke my roza. But my brother always got more than I did.

“Ladki ho. Ladkiyon ki tarah khao. Ucchal kud nahi, ladkiyan tehzeeb se rehti hain.” (you’re a girl, behave like one. Girls must be well mannered) he’d tell me again and again.

Eid was the only day I could move out of my house without seeking Abbu’s permission. Whatever I did was never good enough for him. He’d set certain standards for the women of his household, and I never met his expectations. I thought meeting Harsh had changed it all for me. He’d taught me to fly, but when I looked back I realized that I was like the kite that flew only as high as its master allowed it to. I’d spent more than a decade of my married life trying to meet my husband’s expectations. He never encouraged me to pursue my studies, or further my career because it suited him to have a wife at his beck and call all the time. And I tried…I tried to be a good wife and a good mother, because I believed I was blessed.

But after Kabir was killed, it was the guilt that made me want to continue doing the ‘right thing.’ The guilt, I realized had made me stick to this sham of a marriage for so long. The guilt had convinced me that I didn’t deserve any more than what I was already getting from life. The remorse had eaten through my life. And it was in the middle of that overcrowded street, surrounded by unbearable noise and celebration all the questions which had long been part of my subconscious, resurfaced. Was I supposed to keep paying the price of all that I had or hadn’t done? My religion hadn’t been my choice. It wasn’t my choice to be born a Muslim, or a woman. I hadn’t chosen to get my five year old son blown up. Why then, was I paying the price for choices that life had made for me?

As I continued to walk the celebratory lights of Eid and bright streetlamps were left behind. I realized that I’d walked too far, and was about to turn back when I noticed I was standing close to the gates of a graveyard. People were walking out in small groups, some all alone, others in two’s and three’s. They had buried a body. That body must have had a face, some emotions, some thoughts, ideas and memories. That body must have once been an important part of someone’s life. Loved by someone, hated by someone else. But today he had vanquished every emotion, trespassed the very boundary of life. He had vanished in an instant; and his memories would fade away slowly. He’d gone alone…just like everyone else does. Just like I would…That was it…death was the ultimate end for me. I’d craved all my life for love that continued to delude me. I’d clung to different people out of the need to be accepted. I’d readily given up everything for acceptance…my self respect, my individuality, my right to make choices and my identity. I’d paid and paid and paid…till there was nothing of ‘Zoya’ left in me.

But today I wanted Zoya. I needed her back. I wanted to be able to love the lonely, depressed, deprived and angry 31 year old that was ‘me.’ I wanted closure…and now I was going to find closure…I was going to find my acceptance, within me…It was 8.25 p.m. I waited for Harsh to get back from work…Today there was no food on our teakwood table. The magazines were strewn across the floor; the clothes piled up on the ironing board. I picked up my cigarette, took a deep drag and waited. Today, I was just ‘Zoya,’ minus all the tags and titles. I was a woman waiting for her liberation…and after a lifetime of silence, I was ready to talk.

Contributing Story Teller:: Bonsy Manoj Desai, a creatively confused individual, I write because its my passion and now thanks to my family and friends (unless they were only being polite to a demented woman) I finally have had the courage to make it my profession. I’d appreciate all the feedback I can get from my readers and fellow writers. So here’s to the magic of words. bonsy_desai@hotmail.com

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