Ayesha Khan sat on a bench in her colony’s park, earbuds hooked on her ears, waiting for her friends to join her. She saw Samreen and Neha enter the park. They lived next door to each other and often came together. Rashmi was the last one to join them.
The friends had met for walks and talks in the park a couple of times. By now they knew exactly where to come. That bench was the meeting point for the friends. It was here in the park, two months ago, that Ayesha had met them while exploring the facilities and conveniences of the new colony.
She had preferred another apartment complex to this one, however, when things didn’t work out, they shifted here. Ayesha often said to Sameer, her husband, “Serendipity has led us to the right place and friends.” And Sameer would reply, “Whatever has led us to our present will surely, one day, lead us back to the old places and old friends too. But let’s see what today has to offer us.”
Her new friends had filled up the void in her life. In the short period that they had known each other, they realized they had more in common than just a residential address. All four friends had gone against their families to make life changing decisions. All four had severed their relationships with their families to pursue their desires. Maybe that’s why they understood each other’s pain so well.
After taking two rounds on the jogging track, Ayesha sat down on the grass patch while the other women continued. A few minutes later Rashmi too joined her. Rashmi asked Ayesha, “All well? You are quiet today.” Ayesha gave her a nod and after a half-hearted smile she went back to toying with the mobile ring.
After a small pause, Ayesha spoke, “Next week is our anniversary.”
“Missing your family?” Rashmi understood the pain too well. Even after two kids of her own, the occasion of her own anniversary brought back the painful recollection of the last time she had seen her mother. Her father had not forgiven her impertinence to get married without their consent yet.
Ayesha sighed. “Sometimes I just wonder. Could things have ended differently? Was it just our sheer inability to handle a simple situation? Or was it destiny, no matter what we would have done, the result would have been the same?”
Rashmi looked puzzled, “What difference does it make?”
“It does. To me. And also, to Sameer. It feels so wrong for two people to be happy at the expense of the unhappiness of so many other people.”
“But weren’t you both engaged to be married. What happened then?”
Ayesha said in a soft tone, “Destiny, I guess.”
But Rashmi persisted. “No, really. What made your parents change their minds?”
Ayesha looked dejected, “It’s complicated. A long story.”
Rashmi took Ayesha’s hands to assure her and said in a soothing tone, “I have known complications. And I have time. Tell me what happened.”
Ayesha nodded and said, “They were not against our marriage. At least not in the beginning. Rather they were very pleased about it. And then something happened. At the time it seemed like a small misunderstanding. But once the ball got rolling nothing could stop it.”
“I come from a close-knitted family. Sameer is a cousin from my maternal side. Our families had history, all good. Sometimes when you’re too close to people you fail to see their other sides. You assume that just because they agree with you about most things, your way of thinking is similar and you would judge matters in the same light. But those are just false assumptions. Many times, the true nature of people may go hidden under the pretence of common civility, but sometimes they are exposed.”
Samreen and Neha also joined them on the grass patch. Ayesha continued to tell her story.
“As far as I can tell, it all began after my engagement. At first, there were trivial complaints from both sides that seemed irrelevant. But as time passed, these took the form of criticisms. I was very uncomfortable with the way the whole situation was developing but Sameer had confidence in the good sense of his family.”
“One day my paternal uncle passed. Sameer’s father could not attend the last rites due to some unavoidable matter. He visited my father to offer his condolences at my sister’s house. It was a brief visit that seemed to have ended cordially. However, the next day Sameer’s mother called a mutual cousin and complained that Sameer’s father was not given the due respect. The hospitality shown to him was not suitable for the father of a soon-to-be-groom. His mother insisted that his father felt humiliated on that visit and demanded that my sister send an apology for the same.”
“The cousin conveyed the same to my mother and the matter was discussed in my family. It was clear to all involved that it was a big fuss being raised over nothing. Some, in my family, felt it was a tactic to throw their weight around and make financial demands for the approaching wedding later. However, everyone felt that the easiest way to resolve the matter would be for my sister to render an apology and settle it.”
“However, my sister questioned this logic. She said that if she just apologized without being given any reason, just because the mother of her to be brother-in-law had insisted, then what kind of precedent would this set. Fulfilling one unreasonable demand sets ground for many more unreasonable demands and creates a vicious circle that has no end.”
“When his mother refused to discuss the wedding any preparations before an apology was given by my sister, Sameer realized the seriousness of the situation. One day he called me and suggested if we do the nikah privately, our families will have no option but to move forward with the wedding arrangements. And it would not be going against their wishes either because the engagement was set by them. But he was mistaken. When they told his family about the nikah his father refused to speak to him again. My family also saw it as a sort of betrayal.”
Neha, who had been listening quietly until now asked, “So your father-in-law felt humiliated because the food was not good enough during a condolence visit and nobody saw that as an issue.”
Ayesha gave it a moment before responding, “At first I felt since my sister was in mourning, she could have overlooked something. But when she spoke about the visit so vividly, I realized she was saying the truth.”
Samreen asked her, “What about you? Did you try to convince your family after the nikah?”
Ayesha nodded, “After Sameer’s parents denied us, we went to my house. My mother did not even see me. Later she sent me a message to go and collect my stuff. When I went, the help brought my suitcases down. My mother had packed my complete trousseau including the gold jewellery that was to be given to me in those suitcases. She just forgot to pack some love. That was the last contact I had with them.”
“It’s been a year now. My parents don’t return my calls or answer my messages.”
Ayesha looked away as she hunched up as small as she could.
After a long, heavy pause, Rashmi said, “Of course it is about money. One way or the other it is always about the money. Sahil’s parents had clearly stated their demands, without beating around the bush when they visited us.” She sighed. “They had demanded Honda City and fifty lakh cash. I was equally candid with Sahil. I told him I will not burden my father beyond his means. Talk to me when you have a solution and not before.”
“Sahil tried to convince his family to be reasonable but couldn’t. We got married in the presence of our friends the next week. When I went to take the blessings of my parents, they were furious that I had smeared the family honour. My mother didn’t even pack a suitcase. I hurriedly grabbed some stuff I couldn’t do without.”
“Sahil was working for his family business then and lived in his father’s villa. He was completely dependent on his family. So, later we went there hoping to melt his mother’s heart and get her blessings.”
“My mother-in-law welcomed me in in a manner befitting a daughter-in-law. I waited outside for a good twenty minutes while she arranged the puja thali, alta and the kalash. The men were at work so it was just her and Sahil’s bhabhi. The graha pravesh ceremony made me hopeful. Afterwards, she took me to another room, while Sahil chatted with his bhabhi, who was curious about our future plans.”
“Once we were alone in the room, his mother told me that room belonged to Sahil’s bhabhi and so did the expensive furniture there, which was part of her dowry. Dowry is a woman’s right, she said. The fifty lakh rupees were for Sahil to set up his new business and to secure our future, she had explained lovingly.”
Rashmi smirked, “It was a brief visit. Our friends helped us find jobs and a place to stay till we had settled down. The expression on her face was priceless when I said to her: Can you loan us fifty lakh rupees to set up Sahil’s business to secure our future, Maji.”
Neha mocked, “Must have been an expression worth fifty lakh rupees.”
The four friends laughed at the joke together and once again they were quiet.
Samreen loosened her headscarf. It was a hot and humid day. She clasped her hands tightly in her lap and looked ahead, her eyes focused on the neem tree at a distance. She started to speak and then paused, “I was…” Neha gave her a water bottle. Samreen took a few sips before speaking again, “I married Firoz, my bhabhi’s cousin, to please my family. He was much older than me and a divorcee.”
“Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not against marriage to divorced people. But I had heard some rumours about the manner in which he had divorced his previous wife. Some relatives gossiped about how he had divorced her by saying talaq thrice in one go. They had had a fight about some trivial matter and he did not give her a chance to explain her side of the story. She was a decent woman who was thrown out in a cruel manner without following the proper protocols and regulations. I tried speaking about it to my mother. She said my brother had done all the enquiries. This nasty gossip was spread by neighbours who were jealous of Firoz and his wealth. My bhabhi had herself seen his ex-wife’s bold manner at a family function.”
When Samreen spoke again, she stuttered a bit but quickly got hold of herself. It was apparent how emotional this talk had made her. “In the beginning, he was very good to me. He bought me gifts and we often went out for dinners. There were servants to cook and clean. I had a lot of time on my hands. I had a car with a driver at my disposal. In short, I had all the resources I needed to resume my studies and attain a doctorate, a life goal I had to abandon because of my marriage.”
“When I approached him with the idea of resuming my studies, he exploded. After that, I was afraid to even bring up the topic again. Within a year of my marriage, I gave birth to a daughter, Anjum. In our culture when a baby is born two things are commonly discussed – gender and skin tone. Anjum took after her father and elderly relatives said without any hesitation.”
“Firoz’s behaviour changed after Anjum’s birth. He grew more abusive every day. If my mother ever saw the marks of that abuse, she ignored it brilliantly. When Anjum was six years old, Firoz slapped her for the first time. When I confronted him, he beat me black and blue. That’s when I decided it was time, I took khula.”
“It was no use discussing it with my parents or bhabhi. It would have created additional problems for me. I took the help of my lawyer cousin about the procedure. She helped me collect the needed evidence and then apply to the Lucknow court for khula separation.”
“The procedure took time and I shifted to my cousin’s house until the final decision day. When my family came to know they were furious. I was shamed but I stood my ground. It wasn’t just about me anymore, I had to think of my daughter’s future. The school where I’m employed pays well.”
When Samreen finished her story, she became conscious of her friends who were listening to her attentively.
Neha said, “You’re incredibly brave, Samreen.” Rashmi and Ayesha nodded their heads in agreement. They were amazed to see this new side of their friend.
They turned to look at Neha. She understood the look. It was her turn to tell her story. Neha was the youngest of the four women.
She began, “My father had to give up his sports career because of an accident. Like all parents, he aspired to live his goal through his children. So, both my elder brothers were groomed and given badminton coaching from an early age. We had a badminton court in our backyard. I would watch my brothers get trained for hours by a private coach that my father hired for a hefty fee. A few years later, I even played and practiced with them.”
“As luck would have it, my brothers failed to qualify while I did. This was not taken well by the others. I was under immense pressure to give up badminton goals and set marriage goals. My brother’s coach, who had seen me playing many times, spoke highly of my skills. He managed to convince my father if I got the right support, I may even represent India in the international arena. After much thought, my mother made up her mind to send me to my maternal aunt’s house here so I can focus on my training without distraction.”
It was getting late. So, they bid goodbye to each other.
Serendipity had led her to a few good friends. One day, it may take her to her family too. Until then, she will relish the struggles that come her way with a few good friends.
Bhabi: brother’s wife
Grah pravesh: the welcoming ceremony of the bride according to Hindu rituals
Alta: red dye applied to the hands and feet of women
Kalash: vase containing rice used in the grah pravesh ceremony
Nikah: Islamic marriage ceremony
Khula: process of separation of Muslim couple where the woman seeks divorce
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