The Right Path

 

They were the sort of people who never paused to queue, yet on orientation day the couple stood meekly at attention with others outside the drawing room of a large two-story house in Old Clifton, waiting to be seated. To anyone watching Saqib and Nisha, as they smiled and nodded at little Nofil’s mummy, already seated in the last row of beige padded chairs, and talked to each other while inching towards their own seats, they exuded bonhomie.
Rashid’s fifth birthday party the day before, Nisha thought as she took her place, had gone well. The setting was tasteful, and the cake-cutting and gift-opening loud and cheerful. The guests had driven off in their shining big cars content and even a few hours later had doubtless remained suffused with the spirit of the evening.
The only flaw, she felt, had been the wind. One gust had sent Nofil’s mummy, Mahjabeen Zaidi, tottering after her scarf, her stilettos stabbing the earth, her saffron silk kurti whipping her lightly on the back, before a waiter had had the good sense to step in and recover it for her.
Saqib, quietly contemplating the same, felt the sight of Mahjabeen running had been the highlight of the evening, but he pushed the image to the side and returned to the subject that had held his attention for the past few days: he was planning to divorce Nisha once school started and Rashid was out of the house. Most of his waking hours were given to fantasies of how it might unfold.
Nisha noticed the set of his shoulders when his thoughts shifted and wondered what he was planning. After eight years of marriage she had come to think of him as more animal than human, cunning enough to manipulate others but not evolved enough to understand how to silence his body language. That erect posture, she knew, meant trouble for someone, somewhere. He had made a decision in his head, and communicated his resolve to all appendages, and it would soon be the end of the road for the manager, the secretary, the cook, the gardener, or possibly, the dog.
She caught his eye, and the corners of her mouth, and his, crinkled upwards. All across the room couples smiled at each other once, gently, before turning their attention towards the front like the kind, conscientious, grateful parents of nursery school children they were.
The two ladies behind the table at the front of the room, experienced ‘educationists’, sighed and gripped each other’s hand before Mrs. Omar, the principal, stood to make her speech. ‘Welcome to The Right Path Family’, a banner hung behind her read.
The speech began, as such things did, with an affirmation of a privileged kinship. As she droned on, offering an exploration of the connection between a balanced diet and a child’s academic performance, Nisha’s mind began to wander. By the time Mrs. Omar was expressing her gratitude that the parents had driven to the school that night without drivers or guards - thus experiencing for themselves the object lessons of civic–minded parking, which could they pass on to their minions? – Nisha was lost.
Her eyes had fixed on the bronze gladiator sandals adorning the polished feet of the woman next to her, Farhat she thought her name was, when, again, a sudden image of Mahjabeen running during Rashid’s party the day before came to her. Mahjabeen had been tottering on high heels but her movements had had a grace to them, a natural center of gravity Nisha felt she herself had not managed to find despite countless hours of yoga, Pilates and even one much-derided attempt to learn salsa. From the way all eyes, including Saqib’s, had been drawn to Mahjabeen’s unsuccessful chase, Nisha hadn’t been the only one to feel that way. And though Nisha believed her husband to be too good a businessman to destabilize a perfectly sound investment, she had considered, briefly, watching Saqib watch Mahjabeen, the possibility that complacency was making her blind.
At the table, undeterred by the sound of fireworks and gunfire emanating from Bilawal House as jiyalas celebrated the ascension of Zardari, the other educationist, Mrs. Firdaus, now delivered her lecture. It was an administrator’s piquant passage on how morality was the ideal compass in a world without direction.
Saqib wished Nisha would stop fidgeting. He had disliked her birdlike movements, the way her whole head moved when her eyes did, when he first met her. Years later, that dislike was undiluted. To him, the time she was closest to grace was the time she had been furthest from it, when she was pregnant. Nisha, Saqib thought, was the sort of woman a man wanted to still, to sedate, while Mahjabeen was the sort of woman he wanted to move. He pressed his legs closer together and tried to stay with the lecture.
Mrs. Omar and Mrs. Firdaus, knowing that their audience’s attentiveness was pretence, began to wrap up. Another minute, another reminder of the bonds of friendship, and the floor was open to questions. There were none.
One man stood to voice his approval of the school’s principled position on language; English and Urdu was all very well, but the inclusion of French was simply inspiring. Pakistan needed citizens of the world, not prisoners of geography. What she wanted for her child, a woman said, were teachers who understood that the quest for knowledge was really a search for truth, and truth did not reside only in the pages of a book but also in activities, so she, for one, was thrilled at both the introduction of a tennis program and plans for a yearly field trip to a school for underprivileged children.
Nisha and Saqib applauded together, her mind on the seamless joining of the scarlet ruffle and the beige silk on the table top, his on the way Mahjabeen’s white pants clung to her thighs. Then a final round of applause for the staff that had made the evening possible, the peons, the assistants, the Goan secretary with her too-bright lipstick and shining cross; one grand flourish towards the refreshments laid out in the foyer – hors d’oeuvres arranged artfully before walls festooned with posters exhorting the saving of the whales, the snow leopards, the world – and the wave of musk, chiffon, Egyptian cotton and light floral scents broke against the door. But the door would not open, and it was not till the first shot was fired into the air that they understood for some of them it might possibly never open again.

*
Women screamed. Couples collided, knocked over chairs, shoved each other, but there was nowhere to go. It was a room with only one visible exit, and there were three armed men in front of it.
Mrs. Omar and Mrs. Firdaus, determined in adversity, raised their hands and appealed for calm.
‘Quiet! Please, parents, quiet!’ said the Mistresses of Ceremony.
Called to order like this, the thirty-strong herd stopped milling about. The men disentangled themselves from their wives.
The three men had ajraks around their heads and automatic weapons in their hands. One jeweled slipper and two designer handbags lay forlornly under an overturned chair. One woman surreptitiously worked her cell phone out of her pocket and tried to text ‘armed men, locked in school, shots fired, help’ to her uncle, the general, but got ‘message sending failed’. So did Saqib, who was caressing the touchpad of the iPhone Nisha had got him for his birthday the month before. Nisha, who had been separated from Saqib, wondered what Rashid was doing.
‘This is a jammer.’ Speaking in fluent English, one of the three men held up an object over his head. His voice was melodious. ‘Effective up to a radius of 80 feet. My name is Mujahid. Gentlemen, my friend here, who you can call Mujahid One,’ he waved towards the man on his right, who obligingly stepped forward, pulling a plastic bag out of the pocket of his leather jacket, ‘will be coming around and taking all mobile devices from you. Put your wallets, watches and the contents of your pockets in the bag too. Ladies, step forward one by one and put your bags, watches and any jewelry you are wearing down on the table. Mujahid Two,’ the third gunman raised his arm, ‘will be collecting them shortly.’
Mahjabeen Zaidi slid her diamond ring, the centerpiece of her divorce settlement and many a let’s-catch-up coffee, off her finger and under the waistband of her pants. Nisha saw her do it out of the corner of her eye and wondered if she should do the same with her wedding band but decided against it. The secret to a successful life was cost-benefit analysis, and jewelry versus seeing Rashid again? Did not compute. She had read too many stories about people being shot dead for resisting robbers. She wondered whether Mahjabeen hadn’t. She wondered whether Mahjabeen could read. She wondered why she was thinking what she was thinking.
The Goan secretary eased her way out of the line of women hugging the wall and tried to slide unobtrusively to the door concealed behind the banner. It opened directly onto the veranda outside. Later she would not remember why she chose to put herself at risk, but at the time it seemed like a good idea. She stopped when the muzzle of Mujahid Two’s gun swung to point directly at her. ‘I’ll kill you,’ he said. She reversed and eased back into her place.
‘Now,’ Mujahid said, ‘we’re just going to make sure none of you is hiding anything else on their person and then we’ll be on our way. No need for anyone to be alarmed.’
At a signal from him Mujahid One pulled forward a man and frisked him, quickly, before moving to the next one. Here he grunted and slapped the man casually across the face before shoving him back and waved a small phone triumphantly in the air.
‘Tauba tauba! Allah has given you so much and still you hoard?’ Mujahid rummaged through a bag of loot. He held up Saqib’s iPhone. ‘Whose?’
Nisha noted the way Mujahid’s shoes seemed to slap the ground as he took three paces to Mrs. Omar and pressed the gun into her wrinkled forehead. ‘Whose?’
‘It’s mine!’ Nisha squealed. Saqib grunted in irritation and said, ‘No, it’s mine’.
‘Make up your minds.’
‘It’s his.’
‘Your husband?’
Nisha nodded.
‘Mashallah. See how she protects you.’ He tossed the phone to Saqib, ‘Unlock it.’
Saqib caught the phone but stood mutely. Nisha remembered the fanaticism of his attachment to it, the way he slept with it under his pillow, took it into the bathroom with the paper in the morning. Mujahid pointed the gun at her. Saqib unlocked it.
In the next few minutes the search yielded another two phones and a wad of dollars stuffed in a sock, plus jewelry a couple of women had ‘forgotten’ to take off. Mahjabeen’s diamond ring remained sequestered in the convent of her pants.
Mujahid, his gun now hanging loosely by his thigh, was playing with the iPhone, chuckling occasionally and raising his head to wink approvingly at its owner, who seemed fascinated by the reflection in his burnished shoes. When they were done, the gunmen drew together. One opened the doors.
‘One of us will stay behind, outside,’ Mujahid said. ‘Anyone stepping out of here in the next ten minutes will be shot. Any questions?’
Mrs. Omar asked, ‘Why did you do this?’ Nisha noted the subtlety with which she had worked her courage into obtaining the tale for its inevitable retelling.
‘For Allah, of course. For funding Jihad against the sinner and the infidel.’ Nisha caught the faint trace of mockery in his voice, but from the strangled gasps around her it seemed some of the others couldn’t.
‘So all the orphaned Muslim children thank you,’ Mujahid said, ‘and especially you, sir,’ he nodded to Saqib. ‘And you, Mahjabeen Bibi. Or should I say sexy bitch?’ He raised his hand in Nisha’s direction.
‘Your husband’s texts to you will help keep them warm at night.’
They left. The Right Path family waited in silence an extra twenty minutes before opening the door.
*
Adultery. Betrayal. Cheating. Infidelity. Affair. Hanky-panky. Nisha woke the morning after with a thesaurus in her head. It seemed a long time ago that the erstwhile hostages had thanked God for His mercy. The men had had a hushed conversation and the women had hugged. Farhat could be heard saying ‘Oh my god, did you see how mean they were to that poor Christian woman,’ as she followed her husband to their car. Mrs. Omar and Mrs. Firdaus had said that nothing had been lost that could not easily be replaced.
Then Nisha and Saqib had traveled home. His only words to her before disappearing into the den had been that the men had decided to keep ‘the situation’ out of the press and the notice of the police for now, so she should not talk about it to anybody who was not there. Nisha had taken off her shoes, tossed her dupatta onto the floor and crawled under the duvet.
When she awoke, twelve hours had passed. The other side of the bed was undisturbed. A pot of tea sat on the white oak desk by the window overlooking the garden, warmed by a paisley print tea cozy she had bought the previous year in London. Through the open window overlooking the garden, she could hear Rashid’s happy squeals mingled with the excited yaps of Bahadur, their six-month-old black Labrador.
‘Good afternoon, madam,’ Penny the Indonesian, imported recently to replace Sylvia the Filipino, stood in the doorway. Her smooth face as expressionless as always, she held out the daily papers. Nisha noted the way her lilac uniform of a short-sleeved tunic and straight pants outlined her form. She wondered if that was why Riaz the night driver had tried to rape Penny in the pantry last month.
‘Who is outside with Rashid?’
‘Radha, madam. Sir said not to disturb you so when he came back from school and wanted to come in and wake you I had her take him outside.’
‘Did he eat all of his breakfast today?’
‘Yes, madam.’
Nisha skimmed the headlines while Penny bustled about tidying the room. They ranged from ‘A victory of process over personality’ (Dawn) to ‘Democracy’s worst revenge’ (Friday Times).
‘Madam, should I send this dupatta for dry cleaning now or wait for the shalwar kameez you are wearing?’
‘Wait,’ Nisha said, by way of dismissal.
‘Yes, madam.’
Still the Indonesian lingered by the door. ‘Is there something else?’
‘Madam Mahjabeen has called several times since morning asking for you. She said it was urgent. I would have woken you but sir had told me that you were not to be disturbed for any phone calls.’
‘Okay,’ Rashid screamed, and Nisha started. Lukewarm tea sloshed over the edge of the cup and onto her creased clothes.
‘You change, madam, I will go check if everything is all right.’
Finally there was peace of a sort. Was Penny’s consideration an example of the kindness of strangers or the value of training, Nisha wondered. How much did Penny know?
She stripped naked in the walk-in closet that led to the master bathroom, and deciding against the leisure of the tub, she turned on the shower instead. As she brushed her teeth, Nisha thought about her lists. She was a perennial list maker, unable to function without written cues cached in her bag. She tried to remember what her lists had said before they had been stolen. By the time she stepped into the frosted glass cubicle it was full of steam. Her pores opened under the scalding cascade.
When she came out of the bathroom, she started afresh.
Buy:
Toothpaste
Anniversary card for parents
New phone for Saqib
After a pause, she added Doggy treats.
There was a list but nothing to put it in. She thought of her garish Indian fabric bag. The more artsy fashionistas were favoring them these days. She had laughed when Saqib pointed it out to her in a store in Dubai but bought it anyway.
When she came out Rashid was sitting on the bed with Radha on the floor by his side, frowning as he watched Steve Irwin wrestle a crocodile onto a riverbank. She nodded at the ayah, who left the room. At last Nisha wrapped her arms and legs around her son, bowled him over and rolled around with him till he protested.
‘Mama!’ he straightened his clothes, at five already an old man, picky about clothes, food, finicky about his routine. Nisha had convinced Saqib to allow a dog into the household because, she thought, it would keep the child in him alive a little longer. ‘He likes strawberry,’ Penny had said of the milk flavoring they were trying this week. Nisha made a mental note to add strawberry flavoring to her list.
Nisha was going through the bags in her closet when the French windows of her room flew open. Turning around she saw Nargis stood silhouetted against the burning midday sun. She forgot to give Rashid his cue to greet his Dadi, but Nargis took care of it, rapping commandingly on the doorframe till he looked away from the TV.
‘Say salam, you little monkey.’
‘Monkeys don’t say salam, Dadi.’
‘Well, say it anyway.’
‘Salam, Dadi. What did you bring me?’
‘Manners.’
She strode through the room, took Nisha’s arm and drew her into the lounge outside. Her dramatic eye shadow, a hallmark of that generation, accentuated the feral look in her eyes. Since the death of her husband she had run the family business like a woman possessed and for as long anyone could remember the lives of those who would let her. ‘Why didn’t you tell me, you silly child?’ she now demanded.
‘Tell you what?’
‘About last night! I had to hear it from someone else!’
Nisha wondered who all knew. Were they discussing it?
‘I just woke up.’
‘How could you sleep after a night like that? I would have been wide awake, at least talking to somebody about it.’
‘There is nothing to say, Ammi. These things happen. It serves no purpose to dwell on them. Who did you hear it from?’
‘Lailu! She said you were seated next to Farhat when it started.’
‘I was.’
‘I tried calling and calling.’
‘They took our phones.’
The sun caught the goldfish in the tank. Red, bronze, blue, golden, a hint of black, Nisha had not known the vividness of pigmentation in the Carrasius auratus was dependent on their exposure to light till the owner of the pet store had told her. She had been inexplicably delighted and demanded one of each color. It was only the second year of their marriage and Saqib indulged her. The tank had grown larger once Rashid was born. She had spent hours by it with him, able to read while he stared at the fish, gurgling and kicking his legs on the cushioned play mat spread on the carpet, obediently turned like a bird on a spit by the ayah whenever she gestured.
Nargis was still talking.
‘. . . Yes, beta, I understood eventually that they took the phones, then I finally got through to Saqib on the office line and he told me the whole story. I mean I got robbed last year but that was some kid in need of petty cash, and it was my fault for not looking around before leaving the ATM. This wasn’t so simple, was it? I mean it’s frightening to think that they’ve got so close to us.’
So it was the robbery she was talking about. Snapping to, Nisha made up her mind to go with the red Coach bag that haunted her closet. She had never had the courage to use it before, thinking she could not carry such a strong color. To her mother-in-law she said, ‘Yes, Ammi, this was on a bigger scale, yes, and they were very organized, but apart from the fact that they spoke English, which isn’t that surprising because remember a few months ago when Shazia’s car was snatched and she said she’d never heard an accent so flawless outside the convent, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. The school should arrange more security next time.’
‘Nisha, what is the matter with you? How can you be so calm about something so serious?”
‘I don’t understand what the fuss is about.’
‘Well,’ Nargis paused, ‘I suppose your ability to deal with things so calmly is a good thing. It’s just that if I had been held up by Taliban who took all my money for Jihad and barely stopped themselves from shooting the only Christian in the room I’d be very upset indeed.’
Suddenly Nisha was too.
*
Saqib was going back to the office after a lunch meeting with his driver Rehmat Shah and the security guard in the back seat when Rehmat Shah’s phone rang. He looked at the caller ID and handed it mutely to his boss. Saqib cursed the screen.
‘I saw Nisha,’ his mother began. ‘I want to know which one of you is lying and why.’
‘Lying about what, Ma?’ Saqib felt his chest tighten. She had made it very clear shortly after Abba died that if he ever did anything to ‘dishonor his memory’ he would pay for it with if not his life then certainly its perks.
‘You told me the gunmen were Taliban. Nisha says they weren’t. So, who were they?’
Saqib’s discomfort subsided, slightly. This was more easily handled than a full-blown marital scandal. He hadn’t actually told his mother the gunmen were Taliban, her friend Laila had. She had heard it from her Farhat, her daughter-in-law. Saqib had let it go when she mentioned it to him earlier, not bothering to correct or contradict her. Even now there was space enough between the cracks for him to wriggle to safety. ‘Nisha wouldn’t know the difference between a piranha and a goldfish,’ he said.
‘You listen to me. In two hours I am meeting the Corps Commander. He says he will do everything in his power to help. But if I go in there complaining that the Taliban are now looting in Clifton only to be told they were common thieves and end up looking like a fool...’
She was angry. She didn’t even know the whole story and she was already angry. It was unfair. He said stiffly, ‘I told you, Ammi, they were fundos. High on Allah. It’s a miracle no one was hurt.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Am I sure!’ He modulated his tone, ‘Of course I’m sure. Nisha is probably in shock. You can’t take anything she says seriously. Anything. Look, if you don’t want to believe me why don’t you ask someone else? Ifty, for instance, or Adnan. I’ll send you their numbers.’ He knew she wouldn’t call them. She would be too embarrassed to show she did not know. He could tell he was feeling cornered. He reached out.
‘Ma, the women were in the back of the room. They didn’t get a good look at these guys. They probably couldn’t even hear them, they were screaming so loudly . . .’ But Saqib was talking to dead air.
‘Bhenchod!’ he shouted as he threw the phone into the backseat and pounded the horn at a motorcyclist who cut across in front. Catching a glimpse of Rehmat Shah tightlipped in the reflection, he yelled at him for not cleaning the windshield properly and turned into the service lane that led to Ahmed Enterprises and jammed the car angrily into his slot.
He didn’t reply to the doorman’s ‘Salam, sa’ab’. His mood grew blacker when the secretary told him that Nisha had called six times in his absence. Inside, he locked the office door, loosened his belt and lay down on the chesterfield.
But sleep was elusive, as it had been all night, and the solace of his porn collection was not at hand. Instead, he focused on their little lie. The men had decided the previous evening that they would play along with the man who called himself Mujahid. Of course he was a two-bit thug. Only women, so easily excited, could believe he was Taliban. Well, let the women say that it was, one of the fathers, the son of an MP, had counseled. Meanwhile, he would use his spies to find the men and the goods. It would be taken care of quietly.
Yes, let the ladies talk of Taliban. Saqib got to his feet in one clean move. At his desk he reread the document he had received from the lawyer the day before. He could divorce Nisha in one of three ways, Talaq, Khula, or Tafriq.
A Talaq initiated by him would involve his thrice repeated ‘repudiation’ of Nisha, then a three-month period of time in which the union council which had registered the marriage contract would send them form letters urging them to work towards a reconciliation. The letters could, the lawyer said, be easily ignored, as could the arbitrators from either side the council was mandated to appoint.
Reading the legalese in translation, Saqib felt the phrase ‘I repudiate you’ sounded obscene. For a second he was overwhelmed by the feeling he was doing something obscene, that there was an element of degradation implicit in the act outlined before him. He read on.
Khula was the exercise, by the wife, of her right to divorce herself on behalf of her husband. It also involved the mailing of form letters urging the concerned couple to reconcile. Saqib wondered who wrote them.
He barely glanced at the third option, Tafriq. It involved judicial process. He did not want the end of his marriage to be a public spectacle, or unnecessarily expensive.
About depriving Rashid of his mother he felt no compunction. The maids he paid for would still cater to Rashid’s every need. Nisha might have breast-fed him, but Saqib felt he had no illusions about the extent of her involvement in the actual raising of the boy. The bathing, the bottom-wiping, the rocking to sleep through difficult nights, the entertainment of a toddler’s mind, these tasks he knew had been delegated so that Sleeping Beauty could lie around some more. Of course, Nisha could see her son whenever she liked, in theory. Saqib knew that he was sometimes a ruthless man, but he felt that he could never be cruel. It was, he believed, a subtle difference, but an important one. An intelligent mind would find it was quite like the difference between Pervez Musharraf and Zia ul Haq.
He took calls till sunset, signed papers, gave a senior manager a dressing-down for lacking the killer instinct. After the man had left, ashen-faced, Saqib wondered why it was that his mother insisted on keeping him around when a hundred younger, hungrier candidates could be more cheaply hired. Nargis sought to celebrate the memory of his father by keeping the relics of his existence around. Saqib honored him by seeking to enrich the edifice he had constructed.
On his way out, he asked his secretary to send a strawberry cake to a People’s Party parliamentarian, inscribed ‘Bibi zinda hai! Long live!’ Then he had Rehmat Shah take him home.
In the car Rehmat solicited Saqib’s opinion on the new political reality: Benazir dead, Zardari elected. Saqib was brief. Pakistanis deserved Zardari. They were rudderless, witless flotsam in a sea of corruption. Who better to navigate such currents than a pirate like him?
At home, the daily load-shedding had started. From the back of the split-level 2,000-yard house, the generator roared its defiance at the approaching darkness. As he got out of the car Saqib explained to Rehmat, with what he thought was admirable restraint, that every time he accelerated too quickly the car used more petrol. He urged him to have some pity on the poor fucker who had to pay for it.
*
Nisha was waiting in the foyer. He looked past her as he walked through the antique hand-carved wood double doors, transplanted from ruin to ruin. She was wearing an electric blue ensemble, her gold-tinted hair flat and sleek on her head under the weight of her conditioner. A faint whiff of lavender potpourri wafted from a bowl on the table in the center of the room. When it was dark outside, like now, the brightness of the chandelier anchored in the stained glass rotunda over it obscured the Sadequain-inspired mosaic above.
Nisha waited till Penny had taken Saqib’s jacket, fastened the polished brass bolts behind them and disappeared. Then she broke on him like a subtly scented, well-heeled storm.
‘Why did you do it? Why? What’s the matter with you?’
‘Nisha ... sweetie ...’ He started, he could manage her.
‘Don’t sweetie me, you overgrown mommy’s boy, tell me why you lied!’
There was a shocked pause. They both considered the insult that had come flying out of Nisha’s mouth. Neither believed she had said it aloud.
As he tried to push past her and go up the stairs Saqib could see Imran the houseboy petrified in the kitchen door, a glass of water on a silver tray clutched tightly in his hands. Saqib did not want a scene. His wife seemed determined to make one.
‘I’m sorry, Saqib, I don’t know why I said that. I didn’t mean it, I was angry. I just want to talk about why you lied.’
‘Nisha, whatever it is you’re going on about, this isn’t the time or the place.’
‘I say it is.’
‘I say it isn’t.’
‘I don’t care what you say.’
‘It is my house.’
‘It’s our house.’
‘Only symbolically.’
It seemed to do the trick. Saqib saw the blood rush to her face and her eyes begin to tear up as she lowered her arms and moved to the side to let him pass. Taking the stairs two at a time, he felt his own blood rush to his face. How had he let her get to the point where she thought she could say that?
Nisha, at the bottom of the stairs, resolved not to give up. Once she was composed again and had drunk the water Imran had scuttled over and tentatively offered her instead - a sweet gesture, maybe he wouldn’t need to be fired - she followed Saqib.
It was important, she reminded herself, for Rashid to feel that his parents communicated with each other. Children could not thrive in an environment of manipulation and duplicity. She had let emotion get the better of her just now and said something stupid, but the damage wasn’t irreparable. She had done worse, hadn’t she? The time she had accidentally snubbed his aunt at a milad and created a minor diplomatic incident in the Ahmed clan? The time she had had a little too much wine and embarrassed him in front of his friends by singing ‘I will survive’ on karaoke night?
Saqib was, as she suspected he would be, in the den pouring single malt into a lowball. The glasses, like the iPhone, had been a present from her.
‘Look, I’m going to pretend you didn’t say what you said about the house because I know you don’t mean it. In exchange we can forget about ... that other comment. Please? All I want from you right now is to know why you lied.’
‘I didn’t lie.’ He just hadn’t told her. Who volunteered that kind of truth?
‘Yes, you did.’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Yes. You did.’
‘No. I didn’t.’
‘If I wanted to have a conversation with a five-year-old I would wake up Rashid.’ Oh god, why did she keep sabotaging herself.
‘I’m surprised you haven’t already with your shrieking.’
‘Talk to me like that and I’ll...’
‘You’ll what?’ He took two steps towards her.
‘Relax!’ Nisha, said, and took two steps back. He had slapped her once, when Rashid was three. He hadn’t dared to since the verbal assault his mother had unleashed on him, but if she had learnt anything last night it was how quickly the unexpected happened. ‘Relax. I’m just asking why you told your mother the gunmen were Jihadis. Why?’
‘You’re asking me why I told my mother the gunmen were Jihadis?’
‘Yes, Saqib, what’s wrong with you? Yes! What else could I be asking about?’
Saqib felt a great weight lift off his shoulders. He said it once more, for good measure, as Nisha fixed him with what she considered a composed look and he considered a bovine gaze. It was about the Mujahideen, it wasn’t about Mahjabeen after all. He almost wished it had been. That it could be out in the open. But this stupid cow, this slack-jawed, witless woman, with her ironed hair and her flat bottom, her rigidity and her lack of imagination, was determined to make it about something else. Delusion, he thought, thy name is Nisha.
She seemed unaware of her own hysteria.
He thought about telling her the truth. But if he told her that, and they had the Mahjabeen conversation, she might tell his mother. He had to protect the small lie to cover the big one. Life for him was now a poetic reflection of the environment. Lying was not failure. Failure was being caught lying.
‘I don’t know, Nisha, I really don’t,’ he said and smiled like he smiled at children. ‘And I don’t know why you care what I told my mother.’
‘Really? You deceive your mother, leave me clueless so I look like a fool when she asks me and all you can say is you don’t know?’
He debated whether he should concoct a story about why he had gone with the jihadi story for the robbery. Maybe he could work with a mommy’s boy angle. I didn’t tell her, darling, because I liked the feeling of knowing something she didn’t. Or something like that. You are right about my mother, she dwarfs me. You are right that Imran is her spy. I wanted to believe that I could handle something on my own. Nisha would lap it up. He looked at her face. Already she thirsted for it. Nisha, poor Nisha, long divorced from reality, now ceaselessly seeking a worthless alimony of irrelevant facts. How had he stayed with her for so long? Why had he stayed with her for so long?
‘Saqib?’
‘Come here, Nisha.’ Moving to the oversized red velvet recliner he wedged himself into one corner and patted the space next to him.
She came hesitantly, in that birdlike way he so hated. As if he was a lomri, a cat, a dog, and she a sparrow. Small, brown, boring. Even fitted next to him she was not still but kept fidgeting, touching her hair, straightening her clothes, interlacing her fingers. He quite fancied himself the predator. In the early days he had often pulled her into bed by her hair, rolled her onto her stomach as she whimpered, but her timidity had grown tiresome.
‘Is Rashid awake?’
‘You know he’s in bed by half eight on weekdays.’
‘It’s Friday.’
‘Oh!’ She tittered as he brushed one lock of silky hair back from her artfully shaped eyebrows. ‘Silly me. I put him to bed. I’m just worried. I don’t understand this whole Taliban thing. Even I know a regular thief when I see one.’
For a moment he was impressed with her. But he remembered how he felt: forget about not wanting to touch her - skin like leather, legs like wood - he couldn’t even talk to her.
‘You wouldn’t understand if I told you.’
‘Why wouldn’t I understand? I’m not stupid you know.’
‘Oh, but you are, Nisha, darling. Stupid beyond belief.’
She moved abruptly away from his hand, which, without his knowledge, was playing with her hair, and looked at him with her pink mouth slightly open. ‘Not just stupid, also irritating. Boring. And more than anything else, not sexy.’
‘Stop it, Saqib!’
‘I don’t feel like stopping.’
‘Stop it or I’ll...’ It petered out. Her options were limited. Her parents had told her so when she ran to them after his drinking had gotten out of control. Your life, your mess after you signed on the dotted line.
He felt, right then, with her panic and her heart racing so close to him, like he could do anything. ‘You stop worrying that little doll’s head of yours for a second and I’ll tell you what I’ll do instead, shall I?’ He reached over and, grasping her chin hard between his smooth fingers, nodded her head up and down. ‘I’m going to divorce you and get myself a real woman with soft warm wet insides instead of brittle dry plastic, ok?’ He nodded her head again. ‘Ok.’
Saqib gulped down the rest of his drink and walked out the door whistling. Nisha heard the thick wood door shut behind him downstairs and sat immobile for a few minutes before getting up and letting herself quietly into Rashid’s room.
Penny waited a few minutes before tiptoeing to the landline in the den. ‘Madam?’ She spoke softly, ‘No, Madam, everything is not ok.’ Nargis listened as her mole in the household, who was on high alert since the matriarch had interrogated the scion and sensed an omission, repeated the couple’s conversation.
After she replaced the handset Penny tiptoed to her bed in the laundry room and locked it behind her as she had done since that incident with the night driver not too long ago. All she had done that time was smile at him, just once, as she passed him in the driveway. He had taken it as an invitation. Saqib had thrown a bottle of vodka at him in anger and fired him on the spot. But it was Madam Nargis who had had him picked up and beaten to within an inch of his life. She had asked Penny if she wanted to watch. This was a godless place, this really was. Next time she would take a contract some place where people could be trusted.
Penny was deeply entangled in her recurring nightmare about the attack when the phone rang two hours later. Nisha, curled awake around her son, eventually realized no one else was going to get it and stubbed her toe on the doorframe as she rushed to the study to pick it up. ‘Hello?’
‘Hello, Mahjabeen. How are you?’
*
Nisha knew who it was as soon as he took the name in the oddly unaccented English she remembered. He must have dialed the number under ‘home’.
‘Your husband is asleep I’m sure. You must have tired him out.’
Nisha Ahmed’s brain began to whir like it hadn’t whirred since she was a child deciphering the anatomy of trees.
‘Is this who I think it is? It is you, isn’t it?’
‘I thought you would remember.’
‘I do.’
‘How has your day been?’
‘A little difficult,’ she laughed from the back of her throat, like she thought the other woman would.
‘I’m sorry if we scared you.’
‘It’s ok. I like to scream.’
‘Do you now?’
‘I do.’
‘Then you could say we are suited to each other.’
‘Perhaps we are.’
‘A theory worth testing, I think.’
‘I try not to think.’
‘Another point in your favor.’
The line was quiet.
The decision came naturally, fluidly, she plowed on. ‘So...I don’t know your name.’
‘You know the only name you ever need to know me by.’
‘What happens next?’
‘You tell me.’
‘I’d like to see you again.’
This time he initiated the pause. Nisha felt the fleeting euphoria of the skillfully drunk and thought automatically of Saqib. If he had been home he would have picked up the cordless extension by now. Could she actually get away with this?
‘Would you now? Why?’
‘I think...I think we have things we could...’
‘Talk about?’
‘Yes. Talk about.’
‘And this is not a plan you are making, in your head right now, to get me in trouble?’
‘Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. If you don’t think you’re smart enough to handle it then...’
‘You like to provoke.’
She had forgotten that she once did, had let that side of her slide under Saqib’s desperate needs. He would not be aroused without an element of submission.
‘I do.’
‘When do you want to meet?’
‘Tomorrow. Noon. My place. Nobody else will be home.’
‘How do I know it won’t be a trap?’
‘Come earlier and survey it if you like, like a common criminal.’
‘You just called me a criminal.’
‘Aren’t you a dirty criminal?’
‘No. You are. Where?’
She told him the house number, the street, the phase, the landmarks on the way where a cow grinned from a billboard and a vacant space yawned where a submarine had once floated over traffic, out of its element like everything else around it.
‘Twelve o’clock then. If I decide to come.’
‘If you decide to come...’
‘Yes?’
‘Bring your gun.’
‘You really are everything he thinks you are.’
‘I have to go. Don’t be late.’
She hung up before he could speak and checked on Rashid before going to her own bed. Tucking the blanket tighter around his arms, she felt grateful for the fact that he and Nofil were friends and saw each other often. Things might have been different had she not been able to remember Mahjabeen’s address by heart.
The last thing Nisha did before she slid into sleep was lock the door to her bedroom. Her husband would not come home that night. If he did, she would not give him the satisfaction of lying next to her.
The net windows admitted a gentle breeze as she tossed and turned, carrying the sea, Bahadur’s gentle whines as he was rebuffed by the watchman, the rustling of eucalyptus trees, and a hint of raat ki rani, a popular, fragrant flower which bloomed in summer but flourished in winter only when subjected to the most delicate thirst.
*
Nisha slept like a baby, with her arms outstretched over her head, her legs wide apart, mouth slightly open. Twice the next morning, first when Saqib came home, next when Nargis appeared shortly after, there was prolonged, angry knocking at the door. There was also enraged banging and once, from Saqib, a kick. But wherever Nisha was as she lay somnolent on her expensive orthopedic spring mattress, with ten inches of padding between its alloys and her bones, she did not hear it. They went away eventually, after a brief argument with each other that culminated in Saqib throwing a book, a hardback about the Chawkandi tombs placed on the coffee table separating him and his mother, at the wall. Then he stormed out, the drama considerably blunted by Nargis’s impassivity. After her son’s exit, Nargis went to the study, where she put together and sealed an envelope, and leaving it with Penny she left soon after too.
Saqib came back an hour later, to collect Rashid and Bahadur. This time he did not even bother asking whether his wife was awake but simply bundled the dog and the kid, furiously, into the back of his car as the guard hopped dexterously into the front, shotgun upright between his legs. As they screeched out of the drive, an agitated Radha ran a short distance behind them till the dust cloud convinced her of the futility of the chase.
And so it was that when Nisha emerged from her enchanted forest she woke to an empty house. She opened the door to call for her tea.
‘Good morning, Madam. Would you like some breakfast or will you be waiting for lunch?’
‘What time is it?’
‘It is quarter to twelve.’
‘Did Rashid eat properly this morning? He gets lazy at school if he doesn't.’
‘Yes, Madam. He had a late breakfast because there is no school today, but he ate everything.’
‘No school today? Why not?’
‘It is Saturday, Madam.’
‘Where is he then?’ She could not hear Bahadur barking.
‘Sir left just a little while ago to take him to Nofil's house to play I think, Madam. Radha tried to insist we wake you and ask your permission but he left before she could.’
The teacup bounced across the rug.
‘Madam, are you all right?’
‘No! Rehmat Shah! Did he take Rehmat Shah?’
‘No, Madam, just the guard. What is wrong? Shall I call Madam Nargis?’
‘Tell Rehmat to start the car! Now!’
She was rushing past Penny. There wasn't time even to brush her teeth, she noted. One day there was all the time in the world. The next there was nothing. ‘Why are you still there? Move you idiot move!’
‘Sorry, Madam!’ the Indonesian had wasted precious seconds retrieving an envelope from where she had stashed it under the fish food container and fetching Nisha’s bag from the chair by the bed. ‘I went to get you these,’ she proffered both as she scurried alongside. They rubbed shoulders as they jammed briefly in the front door. Both recoiled at the familiarity.
‘Not now!’ Nisha took the bag and waved the envelope away but the other would not withdraw.
‘Madam Nargis insisted that I should give it to you as soon as you woke up. She said it you must open it before you do anything.’ Nisha snatched it from her hand as she dived into the back seat, screaming for the driver.
*
Rehmat drove faster than he had ever driven before, faster even than Saqib in his rage barreling towards a room in the club mere hours before, his headlights demon eyes in a dark night, but by the time they got to Mahjabeen's house it was already too late. There were police mobiles parked outside the gate, a hawaldar was insouciantly sprawled under the shade of a neem tree as a body – young, clean-shaven, unfamiliar – was carried out. The envelope poked out of her open bag as she ran through the gate.
In the driveway Saqib’s security guard sat slumped against a wall, a makeshift tourniquet above a wound in his upper arm. Raised voices wafted through the open front door; she tracked them to the lounge. They had cut Nofil's fifth birthday cake in that room, together, only a few weeks before. Stale breath made her nose wrinkle and she thought to close her mouth.
Mahjabeen held Nofil with his face buried in her neck as she yelled at the policemen in front of her. A few feet away, Saqib crouched on the floor. He was crying. There was a sheet spread out beside him. As Nisha realized with a start, it was bloodstained from contact with the small body under it.
‘You, bastard!’ Mahjabeen shouted at Saqib. ‘And you!’ If you had bothered taking my calls, if you had bothered to listen and let this stalker’ – she swung her body, lurching under the weight of her child – ‘know you knew he was harassing me, you could have put a stop to it!’ she cried out. Nofil whined into her shoulder.
‘Mahjabeen...’ Nisha said. Saqib rose to his feet. There was a small bloodstain on the front of his shirt. He must have held the body then, touched it.
‘Don't you dare talk to me ever again! Either of you!’
‘Please...’
‘Get out.’ She turned towards the policemen, ‘All of you. Just get out. Get out!’
She grew shriller. Nofil began to wail. The policemen backed towards the door. Mahjabeen shouted harder with the confidence of the connected. It wasn't till Rashid emerged from the kitchen, his hand gripped firmly in Nofil's ayah's, that Nisha felt she could stand on her feet.
Before he could ask she told him, no, Bahadur was not gone, it was just that he was no longer here.
The Ahmeds helped each other stumble out. Saqib sped off ahead of Nisha and Rashid to go home and wait for their arrival. They needed to talk, he said. Nisha and Rashid sat in silence in the car as Rehmat Shah drove. After a while she pulled Nargis’s envelope out and went over its contents. Her passport and Rashid’s, the pages thick with visas. A credit card. Traveler’s checks. She closed her eyes and patted Rashid on the head. What was this? A message that she was not alone or a message that she was all alone? Rehmat Shah took the directions she gave him without question.
As they pulled up at their destination Mujahid – who had observed the whole drama from the safety of a parking spot down the street before deciding to follow her and the child when they left – continued past them and on down the road. It had indeed been a trap, but not one he would have expected. The boy he had sent in had been a nobody, but soon somebody would come gunning for him anyway. It was time for him to leave town.
By the time Nisha and Rashid got home, the new puppy already had a name. Bahadur.
*
When the parents of The Right Path family met on the first day of school the next term, there was some relief that Mahjabeen Zaidi and her son Nofil were absent. The child wasn't bad, everyone agreed, as they killed the minutes to home time on the benches in the driveway, but the mother? Certain things were better left unsaid. Nisha Ahmed and her husband Saqib remained aloof through the exchange. When they left, their son Rashid skipping between them, one small hand in each of theirs, their silence was commented upon. Nisha and Mahjabeen had been very close, Saqib had told someone, and she was having a hard time reconciling herself to the other’s self exile.
Saqib was, the women agreed, a remarkably enlightened man to be so tolerant of his wife’s preferences. Nargis Ahmed, on the other hand, was quite devastated. She had stopped speaking to Nisha.