On approaching Sunrise Apartment, I saw a small crowd gathered around the ambulance that had brought Sohail’s body home. The compound of the building had a most sullen atmosphere. He had died at midnight from a massive cardiac arrest.
An anguished Salma was being helped down by one of the ladies. Zaid, our brother and the ambulance attendant lowered the shrouded body from the van. A number of eager hands quickly grasped the stretcher, immediately bringing it in the lobby and into the lift to their flat on the seventh floor. Salma however just stood there, transfixed and in shock. I got out of the taxi and walked towards her. Someone, probably a neighbour was trying to console her. She suddenly saw me. Her dazed eyes focused on me and tears trickled down her cheek. “Asma! You have come.” Her voice was choked with emotion.
“How could I not, Salma,” I whispered. She grasped me tightly and broke into sobs. “He is gone, Salma…gone forever.”
I heard whispers amongst the women in the compound. “Who is she?” They had never seen me before. One of them answered. “She is Salma’s sister. Stays in England.”
“Let’s go up,” I said gently, embarrassed and awkward, still finding it difficult to comprehend that the women I held in my arms was the sister I had parted from nearly twenty years back, bitter and resentful for taking Sohail away from me. I had vowed never to meet her again. And I may not have been here today if Zaid had not rung up two days back informing that Sohail was in the ICU and the doctors had given him less than 48 hours! I had been shocked by the news but still felt diffident and hesitant. The pain of betrayal still lingered.
But I wanted to see him, perhaps for the last time. However on landing at Mumbai airport, I heard of his demise. The finality of death does assuage anger and then there were the two young girls – I was needed to be around.
Pale and worn out, Salma was a shadow of her former self. Now, I felt mortified: I may have never forgiven myself, if I had held on to the past. Except for Zaid, there were hardly any close relatives present. Our parents and Sohail’s were no more and his only sister had died in an accident a year back, childless. Her husband had promptly remarried. With their mother berserk with grief, I wondered how the two young girls, eighteen year old Rana and seventeen year old Sana were coping with their fathers demise.
I found them, bent over his inert body crying and sobbing as Zaid and some of the ladies tried to disengage them. One of them chided that it was unIslamic to cling to the dead. The body had to be bathed and taken for the afternoon prayers. The men had already made all preparations for the ritual bath. But the girls were beyond reasoning, till Salma requested them. As they moved away from his inert body, I saw Sohail and stood still in my tracks. His face was puffed and aged and his burnished hair was sparse and grey. At forty five he not only looked ten years older but carried very little vestige of his good looks. Death had glazed his mesmerizing eyes which were closed forever.
Oh those eyes! How they had captivated me. The years fell away. I was back in our small house in Juhu and we were expecting Sohail, a distant cousin from my mother’s side who had come to Mumbai for his post-graduation in General Medicine. It was his day off at the hospital and he was coming home for dinner. My mother was planning a match between him and Salma who was twenty then – a full four years older to me.
“I am sure he will like Salma.” Who will not, I thought enviously. Salma was fair and pretty. Everybody seemed to like her. She had a number of proposals but my mother did not think they were good enough for her. She wanted a well-qualified, good-looking boy from a respectable family. Being a doctor, that made Sohail imminently suitable.
And as for his looks – we were all awaiting agog when the doorbell rang. I rushed ahead and opened it. There he stood, tall, slim and handsome. His dark expressive eyes smiled down at me while my heart skipped a beat. My mother immediately brought Salma forward. He made an ideal match for her lovely Salma; she wasn’t surer of anything more in life. But an hour later, as the conversations progressed, I realized that he seemed to like me – or at least paid more attention to me than to Salma. But when I made this remark after he left, my mother was quite dismissive: “Obviously he can’t give attention to Salma so soon. You are a kid and he just wanted to be nice to you.” But Salma didn’t agree.
“I think he likes Asma’s vivacity. Most people do.”
“Her impertinence you mean?” Zaid interjected. “Let’s not jump to conclusions after such a brief meeting; he is here for two years and for all you know, he may be attached to someone back home or he may prefer one of his fellow students.”
But with time our friendship grew and I started falling in love with him and I was definite that he too loved me. Oh how impatiently I waited for his weekly offs when he visited us. Two years went off, nay, little more and then after two years was when he got his degree. But then came the proposal – for Salma, not me! It seemed appropriate to everyone except me. I hated Salma and our manoeuvring mother.
“No! NO. You cannot come in. Get out of here!” I heard Zaid shouting and saw considerable disturbance near the entrance where a small crowd had assembled. Sohail’s body was no longer lying in the drawing room – they had taken it for the ritual bath.
What could be the matter? Why was there such commotion? Why was Zaid so angry? I made my way to the entrance and saw it blocked by Zaid and a woman clasping two small boys between the ages of eight and ten. She was tall and lanky – dressed in a garish green sari, her visage dark and plain and her long hair awry. She was a crass and uncouth specimen of the female sex – a flouncy! Why had she come here? What did she want? One of the boys looked up and I was startled: he had Sohail’s eyes!
From behind I heard Salma’s voice: “Zaid, let her come in.” Seconds later I saw her making her way to entrance of the flat. Zaid who was glowering menacingly at the woman turned around and his eyes blazing said: “Let me handle this.”
‘This is my problem, not yours.” Salma answered calmly and extended her hand towards the woman saying gently, “Come, sister.”
And as I watched shocked, the woman walked in with the two boys. A whispering wave rippled in the gathered mourners. “Who is she?? Why has she come?”
The lady who had informed others of my relationship with Salma seemed to be aware of the woman’s existence and role in the family (she was most probably Salma’s neighbour and confidant) and led her inside where most of the women mourners were assembled. I confronted Salma. “From where has this brazen hussy landed here?”
“Mind your language Asma,” she gently rebuked me. “She is Sohail’s second wife.” I felt I was hit by bomb shell. I nearly fainted and had to be steadied by Salma and her friend who took me into a bedroom – one of the girls. There I just plonked myself on the bed and covered my face with my hands trying to conceal the so visible shock. But I failed miserably and mumbled “It can’t be true. Sohail could not do this.” I looked up pleadingly at Salma; to confirm it. She wrung her hands helplessly. “Very unfortunate, but true. She is also the mother of his two sons – the boys who are with her.”
I swallowed hard as a stab of pain passed through me at this most unpalatable information.
If I had known this, I would have forgotten him long ago. He would have died that very day itself. How could he have fallen so low? Imagine marrying such a slut of a woman and that too when Salma was still with him. And yet despite his gross transgression she had continued to care for him. She had been nursing him through his long illness. How could she accept it? Why did she do it?”
I still could not comprehend this disastrous fact. The how and why of it disturbed me. I asked Salma “How could he marry that woman? Where did he meet her? Was she his patient?”
“You ask too many questions. It’s not relevant anymore. She’s his wife and that’s it,” Salma answered resignedly.
Zaid came in and announced that they were taking the coffin to the cemetery. We could come to bid farewell till the door. Salma got up and went to the room where that woman was sitting and beckoned her to follow.
“Aren’t you coming?” she asked.
I shook my head. I never ever wanted to see him…
“He is dead now. Forgive him,” Zaid said putting his arms around me. I nodded and reluctantly got up as they lifted the coffin. Zaid joined them and I whispered “Khuda Hafiz.”
That night after all the visitors had left including his second wife, we sat hurdled together, Salma, her daughters, Zaid and me – all of us lost in our own grief. My grief was different: it was for a dream lost, an idol smashed.
I turned to Zaid. “Why did he marry that woman?”
“Because he didn’t love me. He was bored with me.” It was Salma who answered irritated.
“Oh Salma stop it,” Zaid intervened. You know he did care. It was just one of those moments…”
“What moment? Surely he couldn’t have been attracted to her,” I said indignantly. I had to get at the bottom of this matter once and for all. Ultimately, I had to ask the question that led to the bombshell.
“He had taken to drinking and she was a bar dancer.” Zaid explained. “Then she was pregnant and he had to marry her.”
“But why did he start drinking?”
“He missed you. He had wanted to marry you,” Salma muttered in anguish. “But our mothers insisted that he should marry me.”
I was completely taken back by this confession.
“What are you saying Salma?”
“It’s the truth.” Zaid confirmed as I continued to look stricken.
“But why was he so weak. Why didn’t he speak up? Why did he have to submit to parental pressure? Why? Didn’t he realize that his silence, his cowardice, destroyed three lives?” I was indignant.
“Forget about me. I loved him and I have the girls. You must move ahead, Asma. Forgive and forget and move on, if you cared about him. About us.”
I felt hot tears roll down my cheeks. “You know I did. But now I think I did not love the real Sohail. I had loved an illusion, an illusion that I had created in my mind.” So this was the finale of my love for Sohail. I had never thought it would end like this. To think I had wasted years loving a man so weak: a man, who couldn’t withstand pressure, couldn’t be loyal to Salma – a man who had been a failure as a husband and father. I felt empty and lost as Salma gathered me in her arms.
“But you have come back to us. You have come home.” She consoled me. I nodded. I had.
Humera Ahmed is a social activist and Managing Editor of an e-magazine Ehsas For Women. Her short stories and articles have been published in newspapers and magazines. A collection of her short stories was published under the title Checkmate and Other Stories. A keen blogger, her travel stories are published on the blog titled litjourneys.com