“ Of course, superheroes exist,
But most battles are won by a timely pat on the back, a hug of reassurance and an extra dollop of love.”
The events of the day replayed in her head as she trudged back home late in the evening.The panic.The frenzy. The unpreparedness.She contemplated how things had built up to the same.She adjusted the cap on her head as the early autumn breeze played with her hair, reminding her of the delicate fingers that often ruffled them affectionately.
She paused at the doorstep and took a deep breath.As always, the old wooden door with the stained glass protested when she pushed it open.The quietude was unnerving. Switching all the lights on, she scanned the small bakery for answers. Her fingers traced the contours of the assorted tins, the bottles with condiments and the jars of spices, searching for a whiff of the one who obsessed over them daily.
“Unlikely to make it without the surgery,” the doctor’s words echoed in her ears.
The surgery in question required a hefty sum of money.She knew that the amount would cost her her dream. A dream which she had been striving for each day. She flung her cap onto the floor in frustration,banging her fist on the countertop.
“Why?” She cried. “Just when I…”
And then her eyes fell on the familiar piece of cloth lying a small distance away. The bright yellow tugged at her heart. All of a sudden, a wave of guilt encompassed her. She admonished the selfish thoughts and proceeded to where it lay, carelessly flung over an open notebook.
She frowned. She had never seen that notebook. It seemed different from the recipe logbooks that were maintained at the shop.
She glanced at the open page and recognised the handwriting immediately. A letter? And to her surprise, it was addressed to her.
12th June 2022
My dear Azzu,
It has been some time since I wrote to you. Is it because I immersed myself in the joys of this mundane, placid existence which happened to elude us as we dealt with the dramatic upheavals thrown our way over the past decade and a half? Or is it just because we have come to understand each other so much better, that no words , spoken or written can tune into the song of our hearts beating together?
Your fiery, brave, heart .
And my stubborn one, desperate to hide its fragility.
Fragile.Weak. Fluttering like a butterfly.That is how my heart feels these days.
I am hoping it is just the excitement of being with the one I adore.
What about the breathlessness?
Is it your love taking my breath away?
The other day I had this warm fuzzy feeling in my ears as I knelt down to pray and when I got up, I almost toppled.
Head over heels in love, eh?
And then my thoughts go back to those days. To visions of my parents bending over me, as I lay panting on the floor … a small dispensary…injections.
Is it acting up again? My unreliable heart? What had they called it? Something with H?
I hope not.
I wouldn’t want to unsettle you with this petty issue just when you seem to have found your peace. What did you say about the dust that settled to get unsettled? Well, I certainly would not want to be the duster which dusts off the magical stardust that is capable of miraculous happenings, would I?
It is wonderful to witness the transformation in you. A new you. Not in combat with yourself. Finally calling it a truce.
You, peeking out of the clouds to take in the sunshine.
When you discuss how you will set up your own cafe and bakery, the gleam in your eyes casts out all the dark shadows of the past that have haunted you over the years. It makes me smile.
I do not want to push you back into the darkness that you conquered so bravely.
That fuzzy warm feeling is back.I really hope it is not………
She cursed herself for not noticing all the signs mentioned in the letter .She wondered how long it had been?The words told her something.The past months had always seemed to be around her own struggle. She pondered how it hadn’t occurred to her that it was ‘their struggle’?
Unsure of what to expect, she picked up the notebook and turned to the previous page .
19th December 2021
Yesterday evening had been painfully long.The relentless creaking of the old wooden door at the entrance of the bakery,as I leaned on it , voiced the angst inside me. The angst of an uncertain wait, where a couple of hours seemed like a lifetime. Biding time for love to return.
The very moment you had stepped out, I had known that the night would creep in, unhurried, etching its ineffaceable footprints on my heart forever. I had wondered whether those footprints would make me smile or prompt me to shed copious tears in the future. All that I could do was be a witness to what fate unveiled for me. As always.
I had shuddered at the thought of the darkness engulfing me as it had many years back, when I had waited at another threshold,in vain….
But this time, just as my eyes brimmed over, the moonlight embraced a familiar silhouette trudging back along the narrow street to where I was standing. Muttering a prayer of gratitude under my breath, I had tried my best to portray a nonchalant response to your words They had been music to my ears.Words of a commitment. Words that meant the world to me.
My heart danced with joy as our fingers intertwined; yours cold and clammy, mine stained with the bittersweet orange juice that I had been using in the kitchen. Yesterday, the fingers interlocked to seal the bond that destiny had offered us sometime back.
After all, you are all I have. And I think we are finally ‘home’.
She stared at the door and imagined Hida standing there. Waiting. Always there for her. Like a rock that refused to budge. It dawned on her how she had taken it for granted.That her Hida would always be there to welcome her back from her unexplained expeditions. While she had meandered in search of herself, a pair of searching eyes had looked out for her with never-ending patience.
Her heart ached to hug her soulmate.To reciprocate the warmth.The warmth synonymous with that of a lit kitchen stove which allowed the family to huddle together in the kitchen on a cold winter evening. Mundane. Reliable. And necessary.
She knew that she, on the contrary, had been more like the forest fire. Raging.Passionate.Unpredictable. She wondered if in her quest to prove herself, she had burnt the very hands that had supported her?
She worried about the darkness that Hida mentioned.
Her fingers trembled as she leafed through the notebook, back to front
10th November 2021
It pains me to see you so discomfited.As you manage the counter at the bakery, I often see your gaze wander away from what you are doing. Your face darkens and sweat beads appear on your forehead. I know that something has prodded you to revisit the disillusioning maze of painful occurrences that you had encountered a few months back.I go through the same once in a while.I address these moments as ‘sand-storms’. They will come and shake us up a bit, they might bring some dirt along, they will ruffle our feathers but they will not stay. I promise you that. And you will learn to take them in your stride until they bid adieu for good.
And then you will realise how they have helped you heal.
On a lighter note, when you are visiting the memory lane, and your body gets all stiff, I take it as a cue to shift all the expensive crockery out of your reach! Though I have to admit that the vision of Madame sobbing over a mound of broken crockery makes me grin.
The other day you just kept watching the bubbling oil which I had kept ready to fry the pastries.You didn’t back off when the oil accidentally splattered outside the pan, and I had to pull you away. Since then I have decided never to leave you alone in the kitchen. I hover around you when you are sent to the kitchen for some tasks. (without making it obvious, of course).
You, my dear, are meant for bigger things.
To pave the way for others who are trying to find a voice.
To lead the misled back to their paths.
And you will!
And I will be a proud witness to it all.
She marvelled at Hida’s faith in her. It far surpassed her faith in herself. She was compelled to think whether it was that unvoiced belief that had brought her so far. A quiet confidence in her abilities, a hand on the shoulder, a nod of the head or even a wink. They weren’t heroic actions, but when those expressions came at the right time, they could move mountains.
She sighed and went back to the priceless jottings she had chanced upon.
2nd September 2021
We are here. Out of that hell-hole. Free. And together.
A ‘future’ exists for us.
I am aware that no society anywhere in the world can be absolutely accommodating to our choices. We are going to be scorned at. Laughed at. Ridiculed. Ignored. But I have reason to believe they will let us live. And that itself is a privilege for me right now.
I have observed that your choice of clothes attracts more questioning looks and unwanted comments than me. I have seen you cringe. Understandable.
But then, when I see you hold your head high and go about your work, ignoring the unsolicited opinions, I smile.
Because that is you.
And I love you for that.
We left our country so that we could be what we are.
So that we could live our dream
So, let’s not hide anymore.
She wished she could tell Hida that even though she had learnt to face challenges early in life, it was the unconditional love that she had showered on her that made her stand up for what she believed in.She regretted not expressing this when she could have.
With a heavy heart, she read on.
15th August 2021
We managed to fly away. Away from all that was pulling us down.
I feel so light.
I wonder if it is the excitement of building a new life or the elation of breaking a few rusted chains.
There was a split second when I felt we wouldn’t make it. That moment when you turned around and stopped. My heart reached my throat. As a man with a gun ran towards you, I screamed.
I thought I would lose you. Lose a cherished one yet again.
I covered my eyes with my hands and the past came back to me.
Yes, Azzu, a lustrum back, I lost everything to unprecedented, barbaric violence in my hometown. We were sent back from school as news of shelling and bombing reached the authorities. While I took a longer route, my brother chose the shortcut. He had no idea that the short- cut would cost him his life. Neither did my parents assume that they would never return when they went out searching for him. And I, the eternal optimistic, stood at the doorway for days at an end, waiting for my family to come back to me.
This fragile heart of mine had harboured a lot of hope. But in vain.
Eventually, the darkness engulfed me.
It took a lot of effort from social workers at an orphanage to get me to speak.
Yesterday, I shrieked because I didn’t have the courage to go through it all again. I was shattered to see you halt. But that scream jolted you out of your stupor and you made it to the plane at the nick of time.
I hugged you tight to make sure that the nightmare was over.
Am I glad to have you with me!
Now, she understood her reference to the darkness. It had never occurred to her to ask about the details. All she knew was that after losing her family, Hida had landed up at an orphanage. As circumstances in her hometown had turned from bad to worse, the orphanage suffered and the older kids had to fend for themselves. Hida had volunteered to work as a nanny with a family that allowed her to attend an evening school.
And the school was where she had met her.
She was amazed at how the feisty girl had fought the darkness to spread light, in her own quiet way.
She shook her head at her own obliviousness, quickly going through the rest of the letters.
22nd April 2021
As we are unable to meet often, I tend to worry a lot.
The fire inside you makes you bold but the same fire can take a destructive turn if irked too much.
While offering Namaz, I pray to Allah to keep you calm through these trying times.
Those who attempt to mould you a certain way do not understand that they are behaving like the unruly wind which makes the fire more dangerous.
17th October 2020
The pandemic is a blessing in disguise for us.Thanks to it, your wedding got delayed.
As we discussed, I hope you are able to use this time to convince your parents against such drastic measures. Hope their love for you as parents conquers the deep-set patriarchal societal conditioning that they have grown up with.
Hang in there!
30th March 2020
Writing a letter addressed to you after ages. Didn’t feel the need as we met everyday and discussed everything under the sun.
But it is different now.
Never thought a virus would put a pause on the whole world. I miss our evenings at school.Spending time with you makes me forget everything.
My heart beats with joy when we are together.
I know others aren’t really following the restrictions.
However, my employers are.
Also, I remember ending up at the hospital when I was very young. They had said something about a weak heart. I think they called it hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. I am not sure it can take an infection like this virus. So, we cannot meet.
She was shocked . This meant that Hida had always known the graveness of her heart ailment.She couldn’t imagine that she had never broken down and told her about it all these days.She was annoyed with herself for not being aware of such a big fact of her soulmate’s life.
She had been so preoccupied with her own conflicts and blissfully unaware.
Had she known, they could have probably prevented the catastrophe.
She wasn’t sure if she could forgive herself ever.Upset, she closed the notebook and got up.
A folded piece of yellow coloured paper fell out.
Picking it up, she unfolded it.
The last letter beckoned her .
“Or would it rather be the first in the series?” She thought to herself.
11th June 2016
I love your name. I have been observing you at the evening school. Anyone who keeps to themselves and doesn’t express much attracts my attention.
When I first saw you, I was appalled that our society still opts for this outdated practice of Bacha posh.I was hoping it would have died its own death, the idea behind it being stemmed in patriarchy.
My eyes follow you around to understand you better as we choose to walk on our own paths parallel to each other. But something pulls me towards you.
It angers me to see the other girls bully you. Such insolence. No substance. That is why I ended up speaking to them in a firm voice the other day. A bit unlike me.
I usually steer clear from any trouble so that my learning isn’t hampered. But this time, I couldn’t resist it.
It takes immense courage to keep returning to a place where you are unaccepted and teased. And I see you do that everyday. And that’s why you are a hero for me.
I just know that the words came out spontaneously when I extended a hand of friendship.
You know what ?I think I am falling in love with you.
She folded the paper and inserted it in between the pages of the notebook.
There was no time to waste.
She called the hospital.
Entering the tiny bedroom at the back, she opened the makeshift locker, and took out all their savings.She concluded that she would have to borrow a bit from Madame.She estimated that it would take a year or more of hard work at Madame’s bakery to pay her back. Another year to build back their savings. It would be difficult but manageable.
Manageable, because they would be together.
They, who were meant to be together.
They- Azeeza and Shahida.
Because with every cherished one, is the one who has been present to witness it all.
31st July 2022
Did you really think I would die?
I heard you whisper into my ear as I was wheeled into the operation theatre.
“ Come back.”
Of course I would come back.
Didn’t I promise you that I would be the proud witness of your success story?
And I am going to live up to a hundred to tell our story to everyone.
And may a sandstorm carry that story on grains of sand and shower it amongst our people, shake our brethren up a bit, so that they learn to love their Azizas and Shahidas just the way they are.
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