Sameera realized it was never random.
Sameera Chowdhry, the eldest member of the Chowdhry family, lived with her daughter-in-law, Aisha, and granddaughter, Alina, in the small town of Musibaad. Her son Kabir worked abroad as a technician on an oil rig. The oil company paid him handsomely to work like a horse. And when he got leave, it was an extended leave of three months, unlike Mrs Sharma’s son, who only visited once every three years.
In his absence, Sameera helped Aisha run the house smoothly and also kept an eagle eye on the help. She encouraged Aisha to join the colony kitty group and allowed her to spend time with her friends. Life was going on peacefully until Sameera noticed something strange that day and began to put two and two together.
That day, like every other day, Sameera switched on the television to watch an episode of her favourite show. She was about to settle down in her usual seat when she noticed the blue-green curtains billowing from the breeze. It was a cool, breezy day, so she went and sat on the chair under the window. The episode started with a suspense scene in which a girl was exploring the place after she had heard an unusual sound. There were no dialogues and unusually low background music. Sameera heard the gate creak. She looked out the window. Aisha had opened the gate and she was going out. She seemed to be carrying a blue bag. Sameera squinted her eyes to get a better view. Aisha was carrying a blue umbrella in her hand and not a bag as it seemed before. It seemed strange, not just that Aisha was carrying an umbrella in that weather, but also that Aisha had gone somewhere without telling her.
After that, she didn’t care much about the serial. She switched off the TV and went to investigate. She found Alina doing her homework. “Alina, where is mummy?”
“I don’t know, dadi. She must be around. Maybe in the kitchen,” Alina said without looking up.
When Aisha returned home ten minutes later, she found Sameera waiting. Oddly enough, her hands were empty, and there was no umbrella. “I didn’t know you were awake, ma. I thought you were taking a nap. I was at Arushi’s,” she explained, which seemed like a good reason at the time.
The next day, the telephone rang as Sameera was getting ready for her afternoon nap. She hurried to take the call but it stopped ringing just as she reached for it. As she stood waiting, expecting the caller to try again, she caught a glimpse of blue on the greyish gate. Sameera squinted out the window and saw a blue umbrella hanging on the gate. Aisha must have forgotten it there yesterday while closing the gate.
A few minutes later, as she went to draw the curtains of her window, she saw Aisha at the gate. She had the blue umbrella in her hands as she went out. There were many questions and no answers. Where was Aisha going without telling her? What was going on under her nose? Was Aisha having an affair? Or could it be something worse? What if she was being coerced and was going against her own will? Until Sameera heard the main door of the house thunk, indicating that Aisha had come back, she just tossed and turned in her bed. She decided to be vigilant and get to the truth.
In the next few days, Sameera was alert and mindful to stay near a window that had a view of the gate. She wanted to not just keep a tab on Aisha’s movements but also know if an outsider came in without her knowledge.
Sameera realized it was never random. First, the telephone rang and then a blue umbrella could be seen hanging on the gate, followed by the creaking sound of the gate indicating that someone had opened the gate. The short ringing of the telephone was probably a signal for Aisha to look for the umbrella. No one ever entered their house. Aisha left the house on many occasions.
This was a clever tactic that did not leave any trace or record. A message on your mobile can probably be retrieved with some software. And too many wrong calls would alert the others. But this way, no one would suspect anything. It was just a coincidence that she saw Aisha stepping out quietly that day. How long had this been going on? More importantly, what was going on? Her expressions, whenever she came back, revealed content, so being coerced against her wishes was not a concern anymore.
Sameera’s first instinct was to tell her son. But given the nature of his job, would he be able to get an immediate leave? What if there was a simple explanation for everything? His work was nothing short of blood, sweat and tears. The salary was very good but his job was taking a heavy toll on his health. He had lost weight. She didn’t want to bother him without a solid reason. She will have to find a solution herself.
But her own health was deteriorating fast, which was expected at her age. And there was no one whom she could confide in. It was a matter connected to family honour so she couldn’t take the risk of telling anyone, neither her closest friends nor her extended family.
She could confront Aisha when she came back, but Aisha would lie just like the last time when she asked. Or perhaps the next time they hung the umbrella on the gate, she could stop Aisha from going out and demand an explanation. But that may not be fruitful. Aisha may just make an excuse and postpone going. Besides, she would be alert that she is being watched. The more Sameera thought about it, the more complicated the situation seemed.
And then the shrill ringing pierced her thoughts. Impulsive, she looked out the window at the blue umbrella hung conspicuously on the old gate. Sameera knew she couldn’t just let it go. She clutched her walking stick decisively.
Aisha looked out another window and saw the blue umbrella hanging on the gate. She checked herself in the mirror quickly and hurried out of the house. She took the umbrella from the gate and sauntered out. Sameera followed her as quietly as she could. Seeing her daughter-in-law’s gait, Sameera was seething with anger. What decent woman would go on secret liaisons when her husband was away working in the most agonizing conditions so that his family leads a comfortable life.
She was surprised to see Aisha go inside the gate of another house at the end of the lane. This house was much bigger than the other houses in their colony. As Sameera approached the magnificent gate of that house, she could hear them talking. Sameera put her ear close to the gate. She could make out Aisha’s voice. “Thank you so much, Rashi. I will always be grateful to you for this.”
Sameera had never met Rashi but she had heard much about her from others. Rashi had come to stay in their colony two years ago. But her reputation had preceded her. She was the Rashi Singh who had sued her boss for sexual harassment and won.
While the court case had dragged on, the other party ran campaigns to vilify her reputation hoping to influence the judgment against her. When justice finally prevailed, she was taboo for the corporate world. Rashi then shifted to Musibaad, a small town, to make a fresh start and introduce as many women to entrepreneurship as possible.
Aisha said after a brief pause, “Just a few more days. Once the project starts rolling Kabir will quit his job to help with this venture. Then with him by my side, I will tell Ma everything, and then there would be no need for an umbrella signal or for the phone to ring. I wish I could tell her myself; it would have been so much simpler had she known. She is the most supportive mother-in-law ever, but I’m not sure how to tell her about it yet.”
Sameera had heard enough. She was numb with emotion. A tear rolled down her right cheek. She had doubted her daughter-in-law of betraying her son when she was actually trying to create an opportunity for him to quit his job. She blamed Aisha when it was really her own fault that her daughter-in-law was unable to speak frankly with her. She had to do something about it.
She turned to go back home quickly before anyone saw her. She couldn’t embarrass Aisha in this manner. She would wait for Aisha at home. They would both talk about it just like any mother and daughter do.
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