Read the previous two parts here:
“You’re the only family that I have ever known.” Aryan’s eyes brimmed with the obvious scare of losing the only person he’d ever loved. He walked up to Aisha and held her hands in his, “tell me how can I make this right. I will do everything I possibly can.”
“That is exactly my point, Aryan. I have always had to tell you what I need, how I should be treated, how you can love me. It is exhausting!” Aisha was seething with the only emotion that was persistent these last few years. The steel in her voice was enough to pierce through his heart. She pulled her hands away from his grip.
“I am sorry, Aryan,” Aisha continued. “I have tried to make the most of our time together, whatever little we do get. But lately, I have been lonelier with you than away from you.”
“You know I’ve been setting this business up for us. Working harder for all three of us.” Aryan interrupted her thought.
“And that must make me obligated to stick to you no matter what?” Aisha got up from her seat and walked towards the window looking out. “I don’t love you anymore, Aryan.”
“…someone else, is it?” Aryan blurted out the obvious.
Aisha turned to face him and looked him in his eyes. This was enough to make Aryan turn away from her, trying to hide his tears that made way.
Wiping a tear from the corner of his eye, he turned around again, “We have a child, Aisha, and I won’t let go of her. Whatever be your reason.” With a resolute voice and a firm gaze, Aryan concluded the discussion.
Our three-year-old clung to me as I sat by Aisha’s side. The cold from her body had already engulfed the room. Her listless form covered under the shroud as her wrist lay by her side. Everyone in attendance that day was stunned by what had transpired in the last twenty-four hours.
Our baby girl had woken up yesterday morning when I was making breakfast for her. Aisha walked into the kitchen, groggy and jet-lagged due to her last night flight from one of her business travels. A strong coffee would’ve done the trick, but she poured some warm water in a cup and took it back to the bedroom. No eye contact, no communication, no exchange. I may have even noticed that she did not give a glance at the little one.
I picked up a conversation with our girl, who chirpily ate her breakfast by the counter and got dressed for school without a complaint. Lunch was packed by the nanny who deposited it at the back seat of our car, as I drove off towards the kindergarten. Having dropped her there, I turned the car towards my office when the phone rang.
There’d been an accident, or something to that effect, I had heard from over the other end. I rushed home to find Aisha in a pool of blood, having fallen from our eighth-floor bedroom balcony. An accident? This was clearly her last deliberate attempt to eject her from my life.
“How cruel, Aisha… how selfish! Though I had never contemplated you to be kinder, either. But to have taken such a drastic step was beyond my expectation. At least, you could’ve thought about your daughter… our daughter!”
The commotion in the kitchen broke my reverie as I continued to follow the priest’s instructions in swift mechanic moves. The tears brimming my eyes were on a pause. I dare not give her a goodbye. Not yet, anyway.
Some of her office colleagues got up from their seats and made their way out after the priest wound up the prayers. He stayed back. Audacious, is it? I did not look at him then, but I was aware that he was there. Just like he was for the last ten years. Always around, never in sight. Like an aura that embraced Aisha wherever she was, refraining me to reach out to her whenever I wanted to.
When did Aisha and I become strangers, anyway? Was it because of Kabir, or my own pride that did not allow me to break the ice with her? She had distanced herself from me, and I had forgiven her for that. But was it so tough for me to have thawed her heart? Did I not make enough efforts? Did I not blend well with what she desired?
He clearly did. And that is why he has stayed back. Is he experiencing as much of a loss as I am right now? More? Less? Same? Argh! Why do I even care? Am I not supposed to feel vindication towards him?
Why does this feeling seem like empathy?
Is it to disguise my own guilt of being absent from Aisha’s life, while he was around her every time she reached out? As much as I tried to shrug this feeling, his presence continued to pound the truth of the matter.
Kabir. The name itself made an impression — goodness, fairness, benevolence. Often times I wondered if it was just a façade, an act to steal Aisha away from me. Was it even possible?
I just wouldn’t let that happen. I won her fair and square. Without a contest.
“You guys even sound the same.”
Aisha and Aryan raised their head in one synchronized motion and looked up at their friend, Shudhi, who had just thrown a casual remark towards them.
“What do you mean?” Aisha was quick to retaliate.
“Er…well… it’s just that you both are quite similar. And I have noticed this ever since we’ve been in the college. You took marketing, he’s taken up market operations. You’ve been studying together, wading through the challenges of this course, created projects together. It’s like you two are made for each other.” Shudhi explained.
“Not at all!” “Absolutely!”
Shudhi was startled at their synchronic response. It was even more amusing the way they shot a glance at each other and reacted to each other’s remark.
“What do you mean?” Aisha asked Aryan, after a mild consideration.
“I mean, Shudhi’s right. We are similar and I think we should take it as a sign,” Aryan smiled back at her.
“Always glad to play cupid…,” Shudhi intervened.
“No, No …” Aisha lifted her palm towards Shudhi, blocking her away while addressing Aryan, “how is that even a criterion?”
That was a sign for Shudhi to slip away from the conversation.
“Are you doubting that we could be a splendid match?”
“I never really considered it, Aryan. Being able to navigate through all the learning and living that we are doing here in college makes me happy already. I have my eyes set on my future. I want to focus on my career, for now.
“As you must. I will not step in the way of that. Should that stop you from exploring the possibilities of our strengths, though? We’re already a great team, Aisha. Let’s take it a notch higher.”
My eyes fell on her framed picture in front of us. The incense fumes wafted in front of it. How blissful she looked in the picture. Did I always remember her like that? She did have this exclusivity about her that made her stand apart from the rest of them in college. I knew I was making the right choice when we got married. Having had no real family before, made me rest my aspirations on her. Guess, it was burdensome for her, anyway.
Was I supposed to feel guilty for having stocked her with the responsibilities of matrimony? Had I smothered her with my ideas of convention? Did the added accountability of a child throttle her ambitions? I could feel this contrite welling in my heart as all these streams of questions continued to surge in my mind. Why did I never get what I desired? Or is this what I truly deserved?
The priest had gotten the bier ready for our last journey out with Aisha. Her mother’s wails got louder, breaking the stillness of the moment. How easy was it for some to express their guilt, their remorse, their sorrow, their penance. And here I was trying to act the strongest I could get at a time like this—awaiting my moment of absolution.
The folded envelope in my kurta’s pocket reminded me of him yet again. He must’ve been following Aisha to the pyre right behind me. When would it be the perfect time for me to slip in the envelope to him? Why did he get an envelope and I did not? Was it her confession, her suicide note?
I could not have the police lay their hands on it. It was meant for Kabir and he deserved to know the contents of it. I had glanced at his name on the envelope many times; even ran my fingers to traverse the lettering.
Was I really obligated to pass it over to him?
Guess it was my payback for his last gesture of kindness that he extended to me. That’s it and no more. Kabir, this is all that I can do for you, knowing that you share this pain of losing Aisha with me.
“Hello, er… um… Aryan,” Kabir hesitated for a brief moment. “Aisha… Aisha is in the St Anne’s hospital. She needs you.”
“Hospital? What happened?” a ring of concern was evident in Aryan’s voice.
“She was unable to connect with you so she called me. She has had a minor accident while going to work, but she is fine. I think you should get here soon.”
“Yes, of course. Is…is she fine? Is the baby okay?”
“Yeah,” Kabir paused. “I am going to be around till you get here. We’re in the emergency room.”
Aryan got into his car and sped towards the hospital. In the next 20 minutes there was a storm of emotions that heaved in his mind.
What was he to make of this situation?
Aisha was in an accident and Kabir was the one to call him. He checked his phone for one missed call from Aisha. Once? Why would she act so proud in a moment like this? It is my child who was in that accident too, after all.
For Aryan, it was a reason for him to be assured that the family he had always dreamt of, would not be fragmented anymore. He wanted to protect it at all costs, even if it meant holding on the last remnants of his relationship with Aisha.
“But what about Kabir? How could he be there before me? Was he the one to carry her to the hospital? Was he with her during the accident? Are they still together? It’s been six months that she’s told me she hasn’t seen him. How did he surface again? Why!?”
All these thoughts were giving him a migraine. He needed to focus on the road ahead — figuratively and literally.
He raced into the emergency room, and saw Kabir moving towards him. As an instinct, he slipped his hands in his trouser pockets as he walked past him and towards Aisha. Acknowledging him at this moment was not even a consideration. Despite the fact that Kabir’s presence was right in his face.
I vowed; this would be the last time I would want to see him. There’s no longer a reason to, I reckon. As Aisha’s body melted in the pyre, I felt a release in mine. It was over. The sand finally did slip out of my fist, the more I clenched it. And my heart? Oh, this heart refuses to believe it would end like this.
As I turned towards the exit, I noticed Kabir standing at the gate. His gaze was affixed at the fumes emanating from the pyre. I fished out the envelope from my pocket and handed it to him.
The very last message from Aisha. I did not even deserve that from her. In all of my years with her, I was reduced to this. Was this her regard for me? Why do I have to be the bigger person here and deal with her bid? What stops me from sharing this grief with him? No one would know if I pedal down now. Oh, but I will. After the loss of Aisha’s life, I can’t be held accountable to feel remorseful for a thing like this.
While handing the envelope in Kabir’s hands, I fell into his arms. Letting go of all the affliction that I had ever felt for him, commiserating with him on this shared malaise. This was the first time I would’ve seen tears in his eyes. His compassion was evident in his embrace. This was my final goodbye.
The house was quiet again. No one was in sight this morning. Picking up her picture from the sideboard, I observed the creases on her face. Had the fine lines already started emerging in the corner of her eyes and her mouth? I could not believe that I was looking at the picture of the same person who walked around in flesh and blood a few days ago. How transient a life really is! How unpredictable!
A knock on the door made me swing in reflex. Who could it be this early in the morning?
I looked at the letter handed over to me by Kabir and scanned through the contents. Preposterous. Aisha had poured in her heart in that one and willed her everything to him. How cheated I felt today! Yet again! In life and in death, Aisha had failed me more times that I could count.
I have not even recovered from the blow that you lent me, Aisha, and now this!
I clenched my fist. I would’ve done it multiple times before when I could not reach out to Aisha, or when having a conversation with her became impossible. This was similar.
I breathed through my lips, trying to compose myself the best I could. Her words from the letter wafted in the air and rang in my ears. My head was already throbbing with the last day’s occurrences. A long day awaited me ahead – I was required to go to the crematorium to pick the last bits of her.
What was I to make of this, Aisha? Is this your way of getting back at me?
I walked away from Kabir towards her picture. A long hard glance at her face made me observe how her expressions had changed, over the years. The silence in the room was stifling, somehow. I had made up my mind.
I turned around to look at Kabir. How anxious he looked. How hopeful!
Is this your revenge, Aisha? Okay then, here’s mine. This is the price of my love that you will pay.
Walking up towards Kabir, I placed my hand on his shoulder and squeezed it gently. He needed to know that he was not a part of this struggle.
“I think it’s time for you to go, Kabir. I can’t give any of her to you. Not anymore.”
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