Short Story: A moment of us by Farrukh Mateen
“Is this how you want it?” Sameera says. The pain is clear in her eyes, words and face.
“If he refuses, maybe Baba will listen…,” Ayla words fall crippled and deformed from her lips. The lounge falls silent.
It is hard to remember this lounge being this silent. I remember so many green and red blobs of mint-chutney and ketchup had dripped on this coffee table, and we used to wipe them away with our fingers quickly before Sameera came back from the kitchen with the next batch of hot pakoras. But there are no pakoras cooking today, no blobs of chutney either. No laughter or requests for one more cup of chai. Only solid, paralyzing silence.
There is an awful comfort in silence. Like an honest yet anxious assurance. Your life could not end till you were in its embrace. The world could not end. If only we could be encased in this silence for ever. Sealed and preserved for billions of years like prehistoric bugs, together in a golden amber forever. But such is not to be. For only a thousand or so years must have passed when the doorbell rings and shatters the silence, Sameera shuffles, the main door creaks open in its familiar tone, two pairs of feet walk back – the he we were expecting but hoping would never arrive, has arrived. The ‘he’ is thick, big and round like one of those giant pumpkins Cinderella’s fairy godmother could have used to turn into a gilded carriage. He occupies the empty sofa chair opposite the coffee table. It creaks under him probably from the shock of being subjected to the extremes of disuse and ignorance for years and now totally unprovoked to this burden. It probably felt like Atlas.
Thick drops of rain, like pebbles of mud, smash against the angled facets of the bay window next to us. The sky is a monochromatic and uncaring grey. It is hard to tell if it’s morning,evening or afternoon, or January, July or November.
“Why are you here, Mahiwal?” Sameera asks him.
“You know why Sameera Baji,” he says and then continues, “How are you, Ayla?”
The buttons of his charcoal grey shirt were barely holding on against the bulge of his large round being while he was standing and are even more stressed now that he is sitting down. Horizontal crevices have opened up between those buttons like mouths full of complaints and the white undershirt is poking through. Ayla looks away. Mahiwal looks at me.
“This must be your Doost, huh,” he says with a smirk and a sly smile, looking back at Ayla and then at Sameera. “News travels fast.”
The Urdu word Doost, used to be pure and innocent once. Born of high breed and a gentle nature, it enjoyed widespread use in its early days. Honest, admirable, and honorable use. But vile thoughts and the perversions of the soul over the ages had corrupted it. The once proud wall that it was, was now covered with poison ivy of corruption. Where once it was the sole proprietor of the purity of friendship between members of the same genders of course, it was now rendered into this double-faced sociopath who roamed free and who by day still kept up its earlier pretenses but by night and away from pleasant company and always with a sly smile and a quick wink stood for the definitely illicit relations between people of the opposite sex who were not related by wedlock and who worst of all were in love. Dishonorable, dirty, evil. Potent enough to burn away centuries of honor of any family. To breath images of fornication and lust and moral decay. It was with this interpretation and disgust that this Mahiwal looked down at me and my Ayla. It is in his eyes.
It ignites something: Who is he to look down on us? We have done nothing wrong? He cannot drag her away. This is the fucking UK. He can not….
“Chachu Allah-Baksh asked me to meet you, Ayla,” he says. “Before I leave…back to Pakistan. I leave the day after.”
I can feel Ayla’s slender frame stiffen next to me. Her grip on my hand becomes stronger. She is stuck between the repulsion that she harbors for this Mahiwal and the pull that he has been exerting on her like a dark hole upon a little star, since she was born.
“Why are you doing this Mahiwal?” Sameera says.
If only I could carry you off from here, my love, I promise to keep you warm and cozy. If only.
“Chachu Allah Baksh wants us to be married soon, he has asked me to return with you for the Nikah. You can come back to complete your degree before the wedding,” Mahiwal says and then adds, “I won’t stop you.”
I have come to the sad realization that you can study hard and win every scholarship; you can pull all-nighters to make those A’s; you could wrestle the stench of egg yolk off of a hundred brunch plates; you can live off of those cheap Indian meals that come in sealed packaging and squirt onto your plate like toothpaste. But try as you might, there is no pulling apart an Ayla bound to a Mahiwal before either one of them was even born.
A long long time ago, two brothers had sworn to marry off their children before either had gotten married themselves. Amazing. This Mahiwal tied to my Ayla. Done! Probably with a sip of chai and a bite of samosa. Easy. But families had such customs. Families agreed to it. Language supported it. Honorable words supported it. Culture supported it. Honor sealed it. Promises sealed it. Tight – shut – forever.
In an act of mad desperation Ayla had made a futile attempt at telling her father about her and me, a few weeks ago. I was there. It was the strangest of phone calls. One party spoke and the other just listened. The complete antithesis to the reason for the invention of the telephone. Thick scaled traditions and age old promises spoke from the other end…children were to be obedient…to honor their parents…would she let her parents down…would she let her mother in the heavens, down…children could do nothing to repay their parents sacrifices they could only be obedient…good girl……. She never got the chance to have her say.
All I saw were hazel colored eyes crying quiet tears. Tears that appeared from nothing and amounted to nothing kept crawling down her face and disappearing into nothing. “Yes baba…ok baba…as you say baba” – was all she kept saying. I stood next to her, next to the window, next to a similarly careless London evening, helpless, impotent, planted to the floor much like the coffee table and the sofa chairs in the room. Below the window, on Boundary Street, London turned left and right and glided to a halt on the shoulder and whizzed by straight on, all on its own, with not much thought, and with such terribly beautiful freedom. It was always strange to me that Sameera lived on Boundary street. It was like a reminder, a warning of sorts.
My parents in Pakistan had tried to contact Ayla’s father too, though I believe almost halfheartedly only to receive a swift – Ayla is promised to her cousin. She will only marry him – response, which they immediately relayed back to me with an almost equally halfhearted attempt at sorrow. In hindsight I suppose our efforts to achieve any amount of legitimacy in our disposition had only hastened the arrival of this Mahiwal to us. Ayla had described him like how the angel of death hastens to a gasping soul. I didn’t say it to her at the time but I did not agree – where the angel of death appears merciful in taking a life gasping in pain, this Mahiwal was here to condemn us to life without each other, forever. The pain would outlive us.
“She won’t go, and you cannot make her,” the words fly out of my mouth.
“And why is that, doost?” he says with another smirk. He is enjoying this torture.
“Because we are in love,” I hear myself say. I do not know why I said that, there was no mercy in the eyes of this beast, only ironclad shackles that we could feel tightening around our necks. It just gave him joy. He is almost smiling. He leans forward in his chair. It creaks under him.
“You clowns think this is a love story going on here, that your characters are perhaps the bright thought bubble of some fancy writer. That in about two hours, three songs shot in fantastically beautiful locations and against all odds you both will walk away hand in hand from here. Is that what you think this it is?
“This is real life – reality – ALL REAL.”
There was nothing new about our story that hadn’t been written, sung and played out in every possible iteration since the dawn of time. The only difference was that it was ours. Our very own.
It began years ago on the last day of college, with a boy who stood towards the back of the room near the windows. The evening sky outside was a textured deep blue and still as if lost in some thought of its own. Against the horizon dark clouds hung like armies waiting for some trumpet of war. Inside, a sea of similarly plastered faces swayed to loud music under “farewell class of ‘97” banners. Each one of those faces was the same – fake smiles and empty eyes – except that of one. She was perfect to him, flowing black hair that came down her back, hazel colored eyes, black strappy platform heels, thin silver circle earrings – quiet, mysterious. She stood near a bunch of her friends but did not indulge in conversation much. It has to be tonight – he thinks. There was nothing to lose, except for maybe the contents of his stomach, which felt ready to issue forth under the nearly thousand-pound pressure of pent up anxieties and insecurities. What he had put off to every next day for the past two years between math, physics and chemistry could not be put off any longer. There were no more next times. No more time left.
Outside the evening had started to dissolve into night, the sky into a quiet animation of white flashes against dark. The storm was still miles away perhaps, but it was coming. Each step towards her became harder, heavier, laughs like howls tore and clawed at him from behind. But he kept walking. Almost unable to stop. Until he found himself next to her and strangely talking. He could not believe it. How did it even start? Did she say something? Did he? Was there a hello or a hi? But she was talking, and he was talking. Those initial moments that he had dreaded for two years had somehow disappeared. Ceased to exist. Time had lurched three seconds forward. Outside dark beautiful rain splattered the windows, thick droplets on the windows refracted spectrums of all colors. Inside the music stumbled upon melody, the lights upon mood, the crowds into background.
Over the next few sleepless nights messages that escaped her finger tips and those from his heart to her mind via the magic of internet relay chat made clear two miraculously beautiful yet diabolically ironic realities: One, that they each had thought that the other hated them and Second, that she was heading to London for her undergrad and to live with her cousin Sameera and he to a little town in Indiana for his undergrad and to live in a lone dorm.
It was hard to be so far apart but not too bad the boy learned that dollar packs of microwavable Indian food didn’t taste so bad, that one could microwave eggs into an omelet and they didn’t taste so bad either, that chopping salad and cleaning greasy brunch plates at Harry’s wasn’t so bad. What was absolute murder however was that he could only save enough money every seven to eight months to fly and see his Ayla. My Ayla.
Ayla and I put together every penny from our allowances and extra jobs for me to fly out to London to see her. Sameera graciously offered her lounge and the sofa couch for me to sleep on. But I could not stay for too long. I didn’t want to arouse too much suspicion back in Pakistan. One week was just enough time to make up some phony project or a barrage of exams for which I would be too busy to call back home. It had been a successful plan. It had worked for nearly four years.
But where the oceans had failed to keep us apart this Mahiwal now seemed to be succeeding. After all his claim was backed by traditions, by culture, by language. What right did I exert? This was not fiction – there was no plot twist coming up. It really was not a movie. Despite how tightly our hands clasped on to each other I could feel her drifting away again like how it had been after that farewell party all those years ago. Only this time no amount of lying or eating crappy meals or scraping together money could provide any sort of temporary reprieve.
“But you don’t love Ayla,” Sameera says.
“Does it matter?” Mahiwal replies.
“Do you want to live like our parents did? Estranged, arguing, pretending, fulfilling a baby making arraignment.”
“So, we spit in the face of promises and traditions, and take up these western values.”
“We can take up their right to choose, freedom,” Ayla says quietly.
“Perhaps one day our children could decide for themselves but till then we fulfill our duty, children are to be obedient to their parents,” he says almost as if paraphrasing.
“Any marriage needs love or respect,” Sameera starts again. “How could you live such a loveless, pretend life? How could you forget that Ayla will never love you?”
“Everything can be forgotten,” he says sliding back into his chair.
“You liked someone too. I have heard of her. News does travel fast. Can you forget her too? You can help yourself and them.” Sameera says looking at us. “You can tell Chachu Allah Baksh that you do not want to marry Ayla. You are a boy you can choose, she can’t. You don’t even like Ayla that much.”
“What you forget are those acres of land. Acres and acres that we own. That owns us. That Ayla and I are supposed to inherit and keep within the family. You think we should happily pass them on to our doost here. There have been others who married for love, what came of them and of their doosts. So, tell me again who is to help whom. Besides who is to say that I do not want to marry Ayla,” he says with a vulgar smile.
One of Ayla’s aunts had married out of love, or at least what she thought was love. It had not ended nicely. The story went that she would have eloped had the family not given into her demands. Eloping would have brought a ton of embarrassment. But a month or two later her husband had escaped to Dubai with all her money and she came to live with Ayla’s father.
“But why have you both not eloped yet? This is a free country, no one will stop you, you are free here by the rights and customs of this country. This is London. It is free. It has all the freedom you crave. Take it. Run with it. You both are in love. What is stopping you?” Mahiwal says.
“We didn’t want to hurt our parents,” Ayla says quietly. “We wanted them to be happy for us.”
“Ah – but is that true freedom? Would your gora friends do the same? Would they turn away from a pleasure just because it would hurt their parents?”
He kept looking at us. He was right. I could not even make my room mates Joe and Al understand that I had not slept with Ayla, the girl I was so desperate to save up every cent and fly across continents to see all the time. All I could say was that it was a cultural thing, that love was not about scoring in our part of the world. But it was also culture to respect traditions and customs and honor old promises. What parts of culture could be accepted, and which rejected?
Anger churned within me but directed to whom or what, I do not know. The room falls silent. Only rain patters the windows.
“We will never come back again, my friends,” Mahiwal says, now suddenly calm. Almost resigned. “Our love, our happiness, our dreams, we will never get to taste any of it again. We will die first. Cease to exist. Pass away, incomplete. This is not a movie.
“There is no free will, there are no rights, you may think you do. But you do not. There is only obedience, it is bred into us – after all it’s the least we can do to repay our parents kindness.
“But if you do not believe me, test it? Here,” Mahiwal says, looking towards Ayla and producing a folded piece of paper from his pants. “A ticket for the day after tomorrow, you can come with me back to Pakistan or you can stay here, elope and be happy.
“What will you do?”
He left after that, I mean he must have. He was there and then he was not. Maybe he never was there, but that was not true. The ticket was still on the coffee table. A reminder of the fragility of dreams. Of the lack of freedom. Sameera had gathered up Ayla in her arms. There was silent sobbing and some whispering.
I always knew that Ayla was promised to Mahiwal, she had told me when we first met. But we thought we could run away. Thousands of kilometers away who could reproach us. We could try to garner support, convince our parents. Educated children could make their own decisions. But we never really got away. It was an illusion in our minds. We had run and run but we were still there. The borders and jurisdictions that we had thought were miles behind us were still there before us. Wrapped up underneath every step we took. We had been running inside an every expanding and invisible balloon the edges of which were still sealed to the perimeter of our homes. It had stretched and stretched to accommodate our delusions. We had pulled and pulled at it to let us go free but now here on Boundary street we were at our limits. It was at its limits. With one more step either it would explode with a bang so loud that it would kill us all instantly or we could step away let it relax and live like agitated molecules governed by gas laws, the probability of ever bumping into each other again would be infinitesimally small.
“Don’t worry I’ll talk to your Baba about it, I’ll talk to him,” Sameera is whispering to Ayla. “Don’t worry…everything will be ok. Don’t worry I will talk to him.”
Farrukh hails from Islamabad, Pakistan. He is a former Fulbright Scholar and holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with a specialization in micro-nano scale biosensors. His research has spawned a bio-tech startup in Silicon Valley previously. Currently he is working for a biotech skunk-works (startup) in Brisbane, Aus. which aims to commercialize wearable biosensors and presently is working to bring a cheap, quick and easy to use COVID-19 detection device to market. By night Farrukh likes to read and write short fiction based on first-generation immigrant stories. Along with his wife he curates a blog of art sketches and short fiction titled oursilentreverie.wordpress.com