The relentless knocking on the door made Aisha fumble. The button seemed to take precious seconds to come undone; the zipper today, appeared to have a mind of its own. Her thoughts were automatically drawn to the day when she had announced her decision to get married.
The day seemed so far in the past that she had to struggle to collect the memory fragments. It surprised her considering all the disagreement that had spawned as a consequence of it. Disagreement was a euphemism. It was over dinner, after her father had seated himself on the dinning chair that Aisha had broken the news. Her father never tasted the food that night, the contents of his plate made a colorful graffiti on the opposite wall instead. He blamed her mother, holding her solely responsible for his daughter’s aberrant behavior. It all came from her side of the family, he had said, citing the incident when one of her cousin had eloped with a man from a lower caste, ignoring the consequences, the shame that it would cast on the entire family and how for generations to come they would become a source of hushed gossip murmured in the street corners. And now his daughter! His own blood had done the unthinkable – fallen in love with a Muslim boy!
But, Aisha still went ahead and got married, severing all the threads that joined her to her family.
She slipped out of her top, grabbing the kurta that lay on the bed. She kicked the skirt under the bed. For now that would have to do and she prayed that it remained unnoticed. Initially, she had felt guilty, as if she were cheating on her husband. But over time, the feeling had dissipated, just like the way the money, the house and their life had. Of late she felt that even the love they had for each other seemed forced, labored and unnatural as well. She had put it down to the stress caused by the loss the business was incurring, certain that once the problem was resolved, things would return to normalcy.
With quick steps she walked towards the door, and prepared herself for a volley of questions, to be at the receiving end of Ashfaaq’s irritation and anger for things that were going wrong at his work. But there was none. He walked inside, with his head down, threw the shoulder bag over the sofa, kicked out his shoes. Leaving the socks on and the shoes strewn on the floor, he walked into the bedroom.
His silence worried her and she wondered if things had taken a turn for the worse. She was unsure of how to break the silence. She thought of asking about his work, but that would be inappropriate given the situation; about lunch, but she was sure like all other days he had skipped it – not because he wasn’t hungry, but because he didn’t want to spend the money that was steadily vanishing; or perhaps she could mention about the faucet that was dripping, but on second thoughts, even that could be construed as a slight on his part and she wanted to avoid any flare-up that a harmless remark could cause. She sighed. Even small talk had become a chore in their lives, with silence becoming a preferred companion instead.
He was lying stretched out on the bed, his eyes staring at the fan. He detected her presence without actually seeing her, and turned his head away. As if he couldn’t bear seeing her. Probably he held her responsible for his inability to find a friend or relative to bail him out of the crisis by lending him money. Just like hers, Ashfaaq’s family had been shocked when their son announced his decision to marry a Hindu girl. Her mother, a widow for twelve years, had fallen down on the floor, beating her chest, crying as if her son had just announced that he had terminal cancer. Her older brother, who, had taken over as the head of the family after his father’s death, did what any elder would have done. He threatened Ashfaaq that a marriage of this nature would only result in unhappiness and were he to still pursue this, Ashfaaq would be disowned not just by him and the family but even by society at large. At that time, when everything was colored crimson by love, threats and trying circumstances seemed to be situations in a book of fiction and Ashfaaq, with pride swelling his head and love his heart, had unequivocally struck down all entreaties and threats and the two of them had walked away from their old ties, with dreams of a bright and happy future.
Aisha felt the mounting pressure of tears in her eyes as she recalled the past that had promised happiness but had instead cheated them and thrown them unaware, spiraling down a dark hole that sucked them deeper and deeper with each passing day. Her lips trembled as she held back the words that her heart had formed – words to assure him that things would be fine, that she had found a job as a secretary in one of the offices in the big glass buildings that promised a decent salary, and that they would be happy once again.
She had many times in the past few days tried to tell Ashfaaq about her work. But fear and the risk of losing him – the only thing that she had now left in this world – had forced her to keep mum. Ashfaaq disapproved of her working and wanted to don the role of the provider for the family wishing Aisha to enjoy life.
She had intended to tell him, but hesitated, a nagging fear that it would be construed as Ashfaaq’s inability to provide for his family, forcing his wife to seek work after so many years. The hesitation stalled her from being forthcoming and as days passed, the initial hesitation became a façade for guilt, a forbidden act that she committed secretly behind the back of her husband.
She wasn’t even looking for a job when this one fell through. It was all an accident, her good looks winning, triumphant over her insecurity. In fact the thought of taking up some work hadn’t crossed her mind. Years of domesticity had banished the belief in her abilities to survive in a world outside that of her house. Standing in the queue outside the mother dairy shop one morning, she had overheard a conversation between a young woman in her early twenties and her neighbour. Apparently there was an opening for a secretary, and a walk-in was being held that day. She had thought nothing of the conversation at that time, a trivia that had no importance in her chaotic life. When she reached home, Ashfaaq was already dressed for work, ready to leave. She poached him an egg and as she was applying butter to a toast she observed him moving around with a searching look.
“What is it?”
“Nothing” he had mumbled and walked away only to return back and put his hands into the side pockets of the refrigerator cover, from where he pulled out a couple of two rupee coins and put it inside his shirt pocket.
A lump had formed in her throat as she saw her husband put the spare money inside his pocket. She was not sure what he would do with it – perhaps take a bus to his workshop instead of walking like he had done for the past few weeks, or to buy a bag of peanuts and a cup of tea as a substitute for lunch – she wasn’t sure but it pained and constricted her heart. It was then that she had decided that she would go and try her luck at the interview.
The first time Ashfaaq suspected something, the blood had gone to his head. The anger making his heart race faster than it had when he had first seen Aisha. There was no tangible proof that something was amiss, just mere indications that ruffled him up. He wasn’t sure of what to make of it, the guilt ridden face, and the eyes that averted him. Eventually he had come to the conclusion that his worst fear had been realized – that she was having an affair with another man, having eventually grown tired of him, the grim life and everything that was associated with him. It angered him, but some part of him also felt a sense of relief. Relief that was borne out of the realization that it made Aisha guiltier, partly absolving him of his failure to provide for them. The weight of accusations would now shift to her shoulders; after all moral failure was a far grievous crime than professional failure.
All he needed was to confirm his suspicion. So today he lingered back in the side street waiting for her, so that he could follow her and catch her red handed.
He followed at a distance but she didn’t look back even once; she hadn’t suspected her husband to spy on her. She walked all the way to the office building. On entering she headed for the washroom marked women. He stood behind one of the pillars in the atrium, concealing himself yet managing to keep an eye on the door. Ten minutes later she emerged her burqha replaced with a blue skirt and cream blouse, her hair rolled into a neat bun, and a red lipstick marked her lips. He stood motionless, staring at the transformation, unsure of what conclusions to draw. She headed for one of the elevators and was soon gone. Only then did he have the courage to move out of his hiding place and approach a security guard. Upon inquiry he came to know of the secret that his wife had been concealing from him for the past few weeks.
He walked back slowly, down the same road lost in thought, his mind still working its way through what he had witnessed, struggling to comprehend and to arrive at a conclusion. For a moment he was happy to discover the truth, but the euphoria that his wife wasn’t cheating was short lived. The relief gave way to humiliation, her act a symbol of his failure. He didn’t go to his workshop, instead he loitered around a mall -idling, dreaming, cursing and regretting.
At five, he walked back home, arriving just as Aisha entered the house. This perfect opportunity to confront her, free her from the guilt that had now become her constant companion. He knocked persistently, wanting to break down the door, to catch her in the midst of her act. Then she would be forced to admit and it would ease out her pain. When she finally opened the door, he was ready to pounce on her, but something about her made her bite back his words. Her face looked red, scratches caused by the hasty attempts to switch to her normal life.
He walked into the bedroom, staring at the fan as he lay on the bed. He saw her standing by the door like a scared child, and he wanted to comfort her, confess about his knowledge. But he couldn’t. How could he justify his suspicions? How could he say that he suspected her of adultery, of spying on her? He couldn’t deny the fact that they needed money to tide over these tough times, but if the secret was out perhaps she would stop working? He couldn’t ask her once it was out to continue working and in deference to his wishes she would probably quit. That would be hard on them. He turned his head away from her unable to meet her in the eye.
He would keep this a secret; he would play along as well.