A Matter of Faith

The cake had arrived and Saima was nowhere to be found. Romi, sure that she would be again stuck to the computer, went straight to the little cubicle where it sat perched on a little table. She was not mistaken in her assumption, for there Saima was, hunched over the glowing screen, tapping away at the keys, blissfully unaware of the time.

‘You do realize that it’s my birthday celebration. Come on, your work can be postponed for half an hour.” Before Saima could say anything, Romi had hit the button for hibernate. 

“Coming, don’t be impatient. It’s not like they will eat the cake without you,” retorted Saima.

“No, but they might leave. You know how finicky the Chief is regarding timings.”

“All the better. We will get to eat the whole cake ourselves” Saima quipped and was promptly rewarded with a smart kick in the back. 

They soon entered the office cafeteria and found to their relief that no one had left. A boisterous party ensued but soon everyone dispersed. Returning back to their nurses’ station Romi mentioned in a serious tone,

“What is so important that all the time you are glued to that infernal computer? The way you keep skipping breaks, you will soon disappear.”

Saima and Romi both worked at a small clinic as nurses in Begumpet, Hyderabad. They had joined together a year before and had been assigned the same shifts, soon leading to a solid friendship between the two girls. Their clinic had provided the staff with an ancient computer equipped with internet facilities for professional requirements. It was hardly used by the staff on account of their smartphones. Saima, who was yet to get one for herself, was busy on the sad relic of a computer during breaks. Her trysts with the machine had progressed to such frequencies that Romi could digest things no longer.

“I will tell you if you keep it a secret.” Saima whispered in a conspiratorial manner. “I am looking for another job. Especially in the Gulf.”

“Your Ammi will kill you before letting you go!” Romi exclaimed, surprised.

Saima sighed. “Yes. She won’t even let me step outside other than this job, so it’s a dream to think of Dubai right now. But you know her condition. We need the money.”

Short in height, “5 feet nothing” as she was wont to introduce herself, a tight fitting scarf covering her thick lustrous hair and giving her angular face an austere look, Saima was one of the indispensable few among the nurses working at the small clinic. Her languorous eyes belied her frenetic nature, her sharp features and ready smile making her attractive in spite of the dusky complexion. The scarf was more a nod to her mother’s conservative beliefs rather than her own convictions. It was her newfound dream to find work in one of the Gulf States and she was utilising the insufficient breaks for the purpose of searching and applying. They had a few minutes left and Saima headed back to send in some more applications..

Saima’s days were spent managing clients, arranging files and running errands with few breaks in between. Clinics in India are, as a rule understaffed with employees who are overworked and underpaid, one reason why Saima yearned to escape to the Gulf. One of the friends of her cousin worked in Dubai in a clinic in administration. Her stories had turned Saima’s head.

“The hospitals are sparkling clean, nothing like the phenyl smelling floors of our hovels of misery. Their facilities rival those of a five star hotel. Work is comparably less and is made easier by the top grade modern equipment. The patients are courteous and well behaved. The biggest enticing factor is the pay, though the charms of a clean city and easy life cannot be ignored.” Saima had listened spellbound to her reciting paeons in Dubai’s favour and unconsciously this dream of working in Dubai had unfurled in her mind somewhere. 

Earning in foreign currency would enable her to accumulate the amount required for her mother’s operation that much more quicker. Then there was the matter of finding a matching donor. It seemed an impossible task even if she could accumulate the requisite amount of money. Another person would have resorted to useless prayers to an uncaring and unlistening God. Saima, though, had only a passing acquaintance with faith and believed more in human industry than empty requests to God. Sadly it was prayer her mother required and staunchly believed in, but faith is fickle and randomly chooses the recipients whose requests will be granted, whose supplications fulfilled. 

Dreams are not fulfilled by wishful prayers but hard work. Better come back to real life. 

Romi pulled a chair next to her and asked in hushed tones, “Doesn’t it worry you? The thought of going overseas alone among those amorous sheikhs? Don’t they kidnap the girls they fancy? I have heard such horrible tales of debauchery and lustfulness,” she shuddered in imagined horror.

Saima laughed. 

“You live in my mother’s world, Romi? She is the same. Scared of rumours. If ever such things happened, they happened in the past. Now things are much more safe and transparent. I am not worried regarding safety. It is Ammi I am more worried about. Her dialysis takes a lion’s share of this measly salary. Abba’s pension is peanuts. I just wish I could live life without worry.”

“In sha Allah, things will work out,” assured Romi, uttering the arabic words for ‘God Willing’ she had learnt from Saima and succeeding in bringing a smile to her face.

Sometimes fate awaits someone’s heartfelt supplications before granting that which is destined. Saima’s fortune finally smiled on her. She squealed in delight, surprising Romi.

“Why are you squealing like a mouse? Won some lottery?”

Saima hugged her friend. “Your words just came true. My appointment in a large Hospital chain in Dubai has been confirmed.”

Joy bubbled in her heart, her mind full of visions of a rosy future. Before confirming the offer though, she had the herculean task of convincing her mother. Sickness had made her mother cling onto her two daughters with ferocity, as if somehow they could stand between her and whatever fate God had in store for her. Her love for Saima and Saba, Saima’s younger sister, had become claustrophobic, the two girls being accountable for every moment of their time and movements. Controlling their lives gave her the much needed semblance of being in control of her own life which seemed to be slipping from her fingers like sand in spite of her prayers and prostrations.

Saima reached home, her heart full of trepidation. She found Saba in, and handed her the kebabs she had brought for her. Saba opened the greasy newspaper wrapped tikkis and as she gobbled up one whole, scrunching her face at the heat and the smoky tanginess, asked,

“Why are you dispensing these heavenly delicacies today?”

Saima, beset with guilt, for she would have to leave her sister behind in the difficult situation, told her the news. Saba was overjoyed. 

“Wow, so you are going to be a foreign return in a few months. I want a Ray ban Aviator original. Telling you beforehand so you won’t have any trouble thinking up my gift. Don’t look sad. We all know it will make our lives easier,” she consoled Saima seeing her weary face.

Saima freshened up, made tea and poured into two cups. Taking them, she went to her mother, who sat mumbling her evening litany of invocations, her nimble fingers running over beads worn smooth with age and practise.

“Chai, Ammi?” she inquired looking at her shrunken and frail body, reclining tiredly in the wide chair, the width emphasizing her diminished form. She needed that operation and needed it soon.

“Sure.” 

After they had finished their tea over sundry topics, Saima steeled herself and with a thumping heart, said,

“I have to tell you something, Ammi.”

“I have got a job offer in Dubai. I know you are scared of me working in a Gulf country but Dubai is a safe city and the clinic belongs to a trusted chain. I seriously think this is God’s way of taking away our troubles.”

As Ammi looked on impassive, she continued,

“We need money for your operation, for Saba’s future, for making Baba’s life easier. Before you say no, please remember this is the best way forward for all of us.”

“Saima, you know I cannot allow you to go to a foreign country unsupervised. You say it is safe but how do I know it? Please drop this idea,” Ammi replied evenly.

“Ammi, look at your condition. Where once you were the life of this house, now we helplessly look on as your life ekes away, day by day. Think of us. Abba will be left bereft like a clock without its hands and Saba and I will be left without a mother, a mentor, a friend if you do not get the operation in time.”

“Saima, I don’t need a reminder of my helplessness. Not being able to do anything, getting tired at the smallest of effort and being relegated to this corner. There was a time, I used to do everything, arranging, supervising, but now I am here, a shadow of my former self, with no substance. Still, I have made my peace with God. If this is His wish, I accept it with all my heart.”

Saima could feel the irritation in her anguished heart simmering into a boiling anger at this quiet acquiescence by her mother. They already had this argument numerous times in the past. Ammi believed that her sickness had been inflicted by God to expiate for her sins and she had to accept it as God’s will and suffer in silence. 

Fuming Saima retorted, “We can choose to misinterpret God’s words and follow our will but we shouldn’t ascribe our own thoughts to His words. God gave us free will to choose our actions. I believe it is His will that I should collect the money for your operation . Whether or not we get a compatible kidney in time is your fate. You can sit here and count your beads, repeating your useless prayers and suffering in silence. I will go to Dubai, whether you agree or not,” and stormed off in a huff.

“No one’s going to marry you, if you go off alone to a foreign land.” Ammi didn’t hesitate to throw the barb at her retreating figure. 

“Why don’t you accept that as God’s will?” she retorted as she disappeared into the sanctuary of her room. 

Saima went to her job next morning with a heavy heart. As she had declared, she sent her confirmation to the recruiters. Her father was an understanding and liberal man who did not believe in stifling the dreams of his children under parental expectations. He supported her decision and her beliefs. Within a fortnight, the necessary formalities were completed and the tickets arrived for her, to take her to her dream world.

Short tempers inevitably lead to long silences. Ammi refused to talk to her during that ensuing fortnight but could be heard muttering words different than her usual set of pious invocations. ‘Foolish girl’ and ‘she’ll be sorry’ were heard quite frequently. 

The day of her journey soon arrived. 

“Ammi. I am leaving today” she stood before her mother, her heart heavy, hoping for a reconciliation. This was the first time she was leaving home and she ached for the soft loving embrace of her mother before leaving. Grief and pain threatened to overcome her composure but she held herself together, resolved not to give Ammi the satisfaction of seeing her sad and forlorn.

“Do as you wish. Today’s kids are not in the habit of listening to their elders. You will be free there with no one to object. There is no need to remember your poor mother, but don’t forget to remember God. Offer prayers regularly. Don’t skip too many meals as you are used to. May God Keep you.”

Smarting at this curt dismissal, Saima soon left. Once her flight landed in Dubai, she exit the airport to find a young man holding a placard with her name. He took her luggage, guided her to a lavish vehicle and soon deposited her in a posh hotel where her stay had been arranged.

Scared of all the stories she had heard, Saima locked her door properly once she retired for the night and wedged the hotel slippers under the door. Still she spent a sleepless night. The next morning she joined her new job. Soon she realized the stories were all rumours. The city was safe and the clinic was all that she had imagined. Clean surroundings, manageable work-load and a more than decent pay. She made friends and shifted in with a few nurses of the same clinic soon.

“Saima, Ammi is not well. Won’t you talk to her?” Saba inquired one day during their daily call.

Saima had not talked to her mother since she came to Dubai. It was not that she did not have the time. Her parting words still rankled. She had thrown herself into work with all her heart. Her single minded purpose had made her give a stellar performance in the last six months. She had scrounged on good times with flatmates, often denying herself simple pleasures like a night out at the cinema or eating out and had finally managed to gather the sum required for her operation last month. The doctor had been informed to look out for matching donors. So the news came as a blow. Now that the money was there, won’t God grant them time?

“Why, her prayers have lost their potency?” she replied bitterly. 

“Maybe her good fortune is waiting for your prayers. Do you pray for her?” Saba asked, irritated. Saima flushed with guilt. 

Saima could not bring herself to talk to her mother even though she wanted to. She had no idea a few months of rancorous silence could make the closest of relationships so awkward.

What will I say? Sorry? But I am not sorry. I have not done anything wrong. She was the one who was wrong. Do I want to hear her say sorry? Definitely not. But it would be good to hear her voice. I missed her these few months. Shall I tell her I miss you? I don’t want to give her that satisfaction. 

She felt small and petty for her churlish behaviour. Fear uncurled like tiny tentacles clutching at her thoughts. 

What if she had brought on her mother’s recent bout of illness by her anger and hatred? 

When she finished talking, she wrapped her curls tightly in the scarf that she wore in India but had given up in Dubai. She performed ablution and spread out the prayer mat on the floor. Hardly remembering the rituals involved, she simply raised her hands in supplication and prayed. Prayed for her mother’s health, for her continued presence in their lives and for the bitterness to leave her heart. 

Maybe God did listen sometimes to genuine regret. She felt her bitterness wash away, mixed with the salt of her tears. From that day, she tried her best to offer her prayers, finding solace and a little bit of peace. A thought spread its diaphanous wings in her heart and glowed warm.

Ammi would be happy.

Another two months passed. She contacted Saba regularly, several times in a day, asking after everyone, especially Ammi. Saba would tell her in exasperation,

“Get over yourself and just talk to her. Who knows if you will get the chance again!”

She could not explain to Saba that the silence that existed between them could not be broken over the phone. It required a heart to heart chat, tears to wash away the bitterness and hugs to heal the wounds they had inflicted upon each other.

“We got a match!” Saba exclaimed one day next month. “You have to come.”

Saima could hardly recollect how things unfolded. It seemed one minute she was crying tears of joy, the other she was on the flight to home, her things packed, leave arranged, even a Rayban Aviator tucked inside her suitcase, all courtesy of her roommates. Her only grouse was she would be reaching after the operation.

“Get up, beta” Baba slowly shook her awake. She never realized when she fell asleep on the uncomfortable waiting room chair. She looked at him expectantly. “God be praised. The operation was successful. Saba is with her. She wants to see you.”

Once inside, she was shocked. Ammi had become even more shrunken and shrivelled than earlier and seemed tired as expected. She extended her hand, from which gaped a needle, saline dripping into her veins along with the healing medications. Saima gingerly took it in hers, and was horrified to find that she was crying. 

“Ammi! I am sorry. I should have called and didn’t. But I prayed.” she blabbed incoherently as she lay her head in her mother’s lap and let the tears flow.

“Shhh! I am the one who should be sorry. Old people like us don’t know when to listen to our children. I now understand.”

Saima raised her head inquisitively. 

“I know suffering need not be accepted in silence. We do have free will to act for our betterment. We just need to carry out our actions under His guidance. It definitely was God’s purpose to make you an instrument for carrying out His will.”

“Aren’t you worried who will marry me now?” Saima asked playfully.

“Maybe it’s His will that you find someone yourself,” she replied placidly.

Everyone laughed, the carefree laughter precious, and they all carried it in their heart as a beautiful memory, for it had returned to them after a long time.

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