The smell of biryani from the degs wafted tantalizingly through the courtyard. It was the one constant among the bustle at the main gate. Many houses in the city boasted the same scene; after all, it was December – shaadi (wedding) season. People, families were still arriving – they had started coming to her ever since news of the event broke out via the neighborhood gossip aunty.
Outside her window, she saw some children playing near the large, silver degs, having successfully managed to sneak out. They’re in for their mothers’ wrath. Women generally wanted their children to behave well at such gatherings – a perpetual quest to one-up other women, of course. She had wondered often during her teenage years if she would turn into such a mother.
Aapa told her they had arrived in a bus. Not surprising. They had to come all the way from near the expensive, redbrick hospital – the only landmark she could remember at the moment – which, to her, was an entirely other corner of the city. Booking a bus made sense. She wanted to go outside to them but alas could not leave her room until someone came to take her.
How long do I wait?
She watched Amma enter the room. Tear filled eyes greeted her: her mother was famed throughout the khandaan for her emotional outlook on life. She sat down on the bed beside her and sniffed into an embroidered handkerchief. Amma then produced her dupatta and draped it over her head.
Five more minutes, she had whispered brokenly before leaving.
Five more minutes.
She sighed into the freshly laundered dupatta. Her mother was unhappy, she knew. Amma had always believed she could do better; and today, her regret at having said yes to the rishta (proposal) was most acute.
Where is Abba? Probably entangled himself with the caterer to avoid us. Amma could expect no comfort from Abba anyway, she thought – he was never in the state to support her.
There were other relatives in the room too. Relatives she had tried to ignore for the past few hours. They were giving her advice, and speculating on the future:
“My duas will always be with you, beta.”
“This is a new stage, a new chapter of your life.”
“Haye, will you work once things settle down?”
Some girls never even get to see this day, she reflected as her sisters finally arrived to take her.
“All the men have gone outside, you can come now,” Aapa told her.
“All the men except him.” Her obstinate answer.
She saw him – all magnificent simplicity, she thought – waiting in the lounge, the very picture of calmness. He looked immaculate. Like always. Beside him sat her mother-in-law, her saas, who insisted on being called Mama but she could not bring herself to address her as anything other than ‘Aunty’. She noticed that Abba had shifted all the furniture to make space for him in the center. I would’ve preferred the corner near the window.
Aunty stood up as she came in. She stepped towards her, wobbling on her cane. She isn’t wearing her rings. Aunty held her, cupped her cheeks – she was not sure if she did it to stabilize herself or to express affection – and regarded her with a beseeching look in her dark-brown eyes. “Please!” she breathed.
Her dupatta slipped from her head.
“Ammi!” an energetic little boy wrapped himself around her leg.
“I…I,” she began, looking directly at him. Aunty squeezed her hand encouragingly. “I forgive my m…mehr.*”
For a moment, his cold, dead body seemed more peaceful than before.
She broke down, finally realizing he was not going to respond.
Tonight would be her first as a widow.
*In Islam, a mahr (in Arabic: مهر; Persian: مهريه; Turkish: Mehir also transliterated mehr, meher, mehrieh or mahriyeh) is a mandatory payment, in the form of money or possessions paid or promised to be paid by the groom, or by groom’s father, to the bride at the time of marriage, that legally becomes her property.