by Nwa A. Rizwi
Ever since she was a little girl, there had always been one thing she wanted – marriage.
This wasn’t limited to just the idea of marriage, or the event in itself, it expanded into a lifestyle where she longed for everything from pre-marital courtship to being brought breakfast in bed every morning as the sun shined through a very specific kind of white curtains that she had imagined she would decorate her house with to witnessing her husband pass away peacefully in her arms after a life of contented happiness and marital bliss – always he who died first in her mind because widowhood was the last aspect of marriage she wanted to experience in order to come full circle. When her friends in medical school would talk about post-graduate studies and pour over brochures of universities abroad, she would scroll through designs of wedding dresses for all five events she knew she wanted and had already planned in her mind to great extent. When her colleagues would apply for medical camps in places like Turkey, she would instead look at hotels near the Bosporus where she could go on her honeymoon – would a billowing frock look more romantic on the edge of the strait or would it be better to get the most out of photography if she wore a black leather jacket against the swirl of colors in the sky kissed by a sunset? It would all depend, she had to admit, on whether she would already be pregnant at that time or not.
Ever since she was a little girl, there had always been a particular plan.
Yet, a day before her wedding night, when her prospective sister-in-law called to say that the carved silver tray she wanted her ring to be placed in as it was carried down a carefully designed isle had not been delivered, she had to shove her closed fist in the folds of her ceremonial clothes and suffer through a mehndi only pretending to be cheerful. A day after her wedding, when she had woken up to a slumbering husband who preferred to be served breakfast on the family dining table by his mother, she had to plaster a smile on her face and bear it while she dug her nails into the side of her thigh under the table. And a week after the ceremony, when international travel had been declared limited due to the onset of COVID-19, she had to settle with barely suppressed annoyance for a smaller, lesser romantic jaunt to one of the few mountain resorts open for tourists in a city nearby. Even this assuming hill of a mountain she had to share with everyone like herself who had gotten married just as the sun set on their collective plans for the future. In moments of weakness, if anybody had asked her what she had truly wanted, she would have told them about the violent images that flashed through her mind barely moments before she overcame these.
“It’s a wife’s responsibility to bear with the shortcomings of her husband,” she said to her mother while reporting her daily progress on the phone.
“But none of this is really fair to you,” her mother said with a sigh. “I would have liked to see you happy and settled.”
“I am happy and settled with even much less, ma.” Sadaf wandered to the window in their hotel room and absentmindedly looked out towards the valley spread out some distance away. “You wouldn’t believe how desperate some of these couples are,” she commented. “They seem like they ran to the courts to get registered just before the lockdown so that they didn’t have to postpone the wedding till after. They hardly seem to know one another, let alone be able to tolerate a lesser honeymoon than they must have planned for the sake of their partners.”
Her mother laughed. “Most of them wouldn’t make it out of the lockdown together,” she predicted. “Girls nowadays don’t know the first thing about marriage, and this time they will have to spend in such close proximity to their husband and in-laws is really going to drive them to their limit.”
“Hmm,” Sadaf agreed. “So many of my friends who got married earlier found it so difficult to make and maintain relationships with their extended families that I wonder what they would have done in a situation like this. At least then they had some time, and space and privacy to actually have gotten to know one another, and even then, they were unhappy.”
In the nook of the adjoining balcony, she saw a nesting dove that had fluffed up its wings and settled deeply over its eggs. Instinctively, her hand went to her own belly.
“Compromise,” her mother was saying across the line. “It’s truly a lost virtue, and the staple of any strong relationship.”
It had already been close to a month since she had been married. They had come to their honeymoon a full three weeks ago and every week, her pregnancy test had come out negative.
“If a woman cannot tolerate the conditions she finds herself in, I would readily say that she was never ready for marriage in the first place.”
She could only wait for her monthly cycle to begin for things to become clearer. On part of her husband, she had started to doubt that he was even trying.
“You’ve taught me so much,” she replied to her mother abruptly. “It is because of you that I am whole heartedly who I am.”
“Kind, forgiving, accommodating and nothing less,” said the woman who had known Sadaf since the moment of her inception with robust pride. She also caught the sadness in her daughter’s voice. “Still nothing?” she asked gently.
Sadaf shook her head before she could form the word in her throat.
“Are you eating the mixture of nuts like I told you to?”
“And the fennel seeds, and the fatty fish, and as many dairy products as I can lay hands on,” she smiled at the memory of the massive bowl of yogurt she had devoured for breakfast.
“Then maybe you need to see a gynecologist?”
“I’ve been to two here,” she said turning away from the window and returning to the side of their bed. Lying down on this, she confessed something that had been bothering her. “I don’t think there is anything essentially wrong with either of us,” she started hesitantly. “I think there is something darker at play.”
As though jolted, her mother spoke with quiet urgency. “What is it?”
Sadaf twirled the tying ends of her red silk pajama. She was supposed to be already dressed for the day, but the water in the shower hadn’t been as warm as to be to her liking so she had sent her husband down to the reception to figure the matter out. “There’s a woman in Eman’s family,” she began. “One of his aunts, if you remember? She was in the front row at our wedding because she’s papa’s only sister–”
“The one who had joked about having fought for your case when the marriage proposal had been sent?” her mother interrupted. “I found her crass, and I told her to her face right then that this was a love marriage lest she was under any other assumption!”
Sadaf felt the blood burn in her cheeks. She sat up abruptly. “How dare she,” she explained through gritted teeth. She had come to an unknown family, given up the love and comfort of her home, trusted practically strangers all in the name of love, and all this woman had done was go to gross extents to make her feel uncomfortable. She had even jinxed her happy prospective pregnancy with her evil eye. “She calls Eman every morning, especially asking for me and then very pointedly enquires after my health,” the words came pouring out now that she felt riled up. “She even had the audacity to send flowers all the way out here with a big cake and a card that wished us well on a happy and fruitful marriage!”
Her mother gasped audibly. “There really is no saying how far some will go!”
“It’s just not right,” Sadaf said, her eyes beginning to sting with tears. “She’s known that this is what I’ve always wanted in life – a healthy husband, and the wellbeing and happiness of my own family! And she is absolutely out to get me.”
“I don’t think you should go back home to any of them again,” her mother advised frankly. “You should lay down the rule that for the safety of your health and well-being, it’s either you or her.”
Sadaf had been thinking about this for some time now. In fact, the more her mother’s words sank in, the more she believed she had been thinking along the same lines for quite some time. Even when she had come to her then future in-law’s home when the matter was being finalised, she had felt something to be awfully wrong with that specific part of the family. “Her daughters all go to work like they don’t approve of my staying at home,” she recounted from the two or three encounters she had bravely powered through with them. “They never have time to come see me, to come to my game nights on Tuesdays, to even come to my baking sessions after work,” she swung her legs off the side of the bed and moved them around anxiously. “Their father, the phupa¸ acts like he is the most loving man out there – trying to hug me and ask me if I liked the minute gold necklace they gave me for the wedding. It’s just rotten blood, you know?”
“I know!” chimed the mother. “These people can only mean bad for you and the baby. They probably can’t see somebody else’s daughter find marital peace of that sort. They have no grandchildren of their own, do they?”
Sadaf laughed bitterly. “But how can they when their daughters are out there succeeding in the world. Like my getting married was the lowest form of human enterprise.” She covered her belly once again with her hand.
Her mother sighed again. “What does Eman have to say about this?”
“Nothing,” Sadaf said simply. “There are days when I share my insecurities with him and all he can do is tell me that I am being paranoid.”
“You need to convince him,” her mother said. “Men don’t really believe in these things. They can’t tell good from bad and just seem to take people at face value.”
“He says she as good as raised him, and his cousins supported him through very tough times. He says they all grew up as one big family.”
“What nonsense!” her mother exclaimed. “His only family is you and your child.”
“That’s what I keep telling him,” there was a sudden cramp in her side and she grasped at this with one hand. “But he says I need to understand that his own family he is the sole provider for, and this extended family he owes and really loves. He wouldn’t part with any of them.”
“You need to convince him,” her mother repeated with emphasis. “What have I taught you?”
Her lower back was starting to ache as well. “To be wholeheartedly myself,” she said.
“Good,” replied her mother. “This can’t go on and they need to understand that. It is imperative that you put your foot down…just imagine! What will the woman and her daughters be satisfied with? For you to miscarry?”
“God forbid,” Sadaf said, forgetting her pain momentarily to reach for a wooden surface to knock on. “I would do anything for the safety of my child.” She was a good wife, she was going to be even a better mother. She knew she was cut out for it. It was the only thing she was cut out for. This was all a plan. It was all one big conspiracy to run her out of home and marriage, she knew it.
“Can I call you later?” she asked. “I need to talk to Eman.”
“Yes, yes, of course!” her mother said, urging her. “I understand everything, meri jaan. You do what you have to do…but remember that you are kind, forgiving, accommodating and nothing less. No matter how much they try to, don’t let them scare you into giving up your place. You are absolute courage.”
“I am absolute courage,” she replied. In her mind, she recalled that she is also kind, forgiving, accommodating and nothing less. She repeated this to herself after the call ended over and over again. The more she said it, the more she felt her body respond to it. It was as though a talisman imbuing her with strength. Even though there was a sharp pain in her side, she paced the length of the room waiting for her husband.
Was he party to the whole scheme? Did he at least know what kind of heinous crimes his family was involved in committing? Or was he so naïve as to believe that nobody was jealous of their marriage? He was a handsome man, a musician. She was sure there must have been times his aunt had dreamed of getting her daughters married to him. She, on her part, was a prize. There was hardly a woman she had personally come across who held such passion for domesticity as she did. Didn’t she know how women envied her? She had always faced it. In school, her friends used to make fun of her, they used to call her crazed, and desperate, and deluded. They didn’t appreciate that she found the much-coveted happiness in as simple an endeavour as the dream of marriage when they couldn’t possibly have found it in between covers of brochures and the pages of a job application – what with their colourful scrubs, and suits, and drawing tablets, and their nine to five jobs, and their “unwinding” on the weekend with one partner or another; did they really think they could fool anybody into really believing that they were happy?
She was happy.
And she was under threat, too.
The doorknob rattled. Sadaf swirled in her footsteps to face whoever entered, and when she saw her husband’s face appear from the end of the door, instead of greeting him with the excitement any newlywed must feel at seeing their partner, she grabbed the saltshaker on the side table nearest to her and flung it at him.
“You know, don’t you!” she shouted.
Ducking behind the door with great agility just in time, Eman missed the metal projectile aimed at him and shouted back at her with renewed incredulity. “Have you lost your god damn mind again?!”
“You know!” she accused, leaping towards the vase on the table next to the window.
He quickly entered the room, closing the door shut behind himself with a kick, and jumped at her outstretched arms before she could reach the next thing that would have been aimed towards his head. He held her by the shoulders and shook her lightly. “What on earth are you going on about?” he asked, his eyes betraying worry. His dark circles had deepened over the span of the previous weeks and his cheeks had hollowed.
“They’ve gotten to you!” Sadaf wailed observing these. “You were so beautiful when I married you!”
“What?” Eman asked, resigning himself to whatever rabbit hole she had spiraled into this time.
“They’re constantly out to get us,” she sobbed. “They took my baby from me, and now they’ll take you too!”
She pushed his arms away and shoved at him. “Don’t lie to me!” she shouted. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.” Her eyes squeezed into slits as she viewed him. “I’ve seen the way you look at your cousins! You’re positively drooling.”
Eman’s jaw slacked in disbelief.
“You’re a sick man!” Turning away from him, she attacked the curtains at the windows and pulled on them till one of them let out a telling shredding sound. “You don’t realise that your wife is pregnant,” she moved to the couches and flung the prettily arranged cushions one by one onto the ground. “You don’t see that these things stress me out, that they might harm our baby,” she moved to the wardrobe next and started dragging out her clothes. “You think I married you for the fame, for the things,” she threw one dress at her feet, “the jewelry,” then another, “the easy life,” and then another. “But you are wrong! I married you because I fell in love with you. I gave up a career as a doctor for you.”
Eman ran a hand through his hair and just looked at his wife. “I don’t want you to be upset,” he said. “I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong.”
“You don’t know?” she screeched, turning to face him, and standing completely still. “I am kind,” she said, digging a finger in her chest with such force that he could have sworn hearing a knocking sound. “I am forgiving,” she said, “I am accommodating,” she said. “And nothing less”, she finished. An electrifying cold settling over her heavy limbs. “What you have done wrong is that you haven’t cherished me,” she said.
Maybe it was time to be a little less, she decided. Her hands closed around the hanger she had been holding. A voice in her head nudged her on. She could be three-fourth kind, and forgiving, and accommodating. When she felt as though she wasn’t being heard, as though she was being positively hunted, as though her marriage, her husband, her child were at stake, she could be something else. She could be a little angry. She could be a little violent. She could rip out his hair. She could stab his aunt. She could set fire to their house and watch what her daughter’s professional training did to help them save their home. She could do it. She could make a home out of flames if she had to. She could be three-fourth kind, and forgiving, and accommodating. And she could be one-fourth something else.
Currently working as a Curriculum Developer for English Language and Literature, and a Subject Expert for the National Curriculum Council, Nwa A. Rizvi is also an author and translator published both nationally as well as internationally. Her work primarily focuses on images and experiences within the web of the profound ordinary that surrounds us all.
Marcos Guinoza is a Brazilian graphic designer and digital artist. His collages are inspired by human feelings like loneliness, melancholy, emotional disturbances, disorientation, and confusion in the face of a seemingly meaningless and increasingly absurd world. He has been influenced by minimalism, Russian suprematism, surrealism, and artists like René Magritte and Edward Hopper, among others.