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The Emancipation
by Radhika Maira Tabrez (Prose - Short Story) | Published On: 17-Jun-2015

Farzana was almost out of the door and about to step into the street when she heard her Ammi’s voice boom from the kitchen at the other end of the verandah.

“Farzana! Be back latest by 3 today. Remember, Shabana Baaji is coming over with ‘that’ family?”

The moment she heard that order, an involuntary, cold sigh escaped from her lips. It’s not like she needed that reminder. With all the frantic cleaning, changing the drapes, rearranging the furniture and brainstorming over the menu that had been going on for the past one week, it wasn’t hard to figure out that either the Queen of England or Shabana Baaji was coming over. Although, she had been hoping that the meeting would be called off. She didn’t have it in her to go through another one of these charades again. Besides, work was really crazy this week. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to get out that early.

“…. You need to be back in time to be able to catch at least an hour’s nap. Your face looks really dull and tired otherwise. And then Saba will be here to do your hair and makeup. She will need an hour too, she said...”

Farzana had told Ammi innumerable times that Saba’s services were not required. Farzana hated makeup. It always aggravated her acne, which would then take weeks to settle down. It was too much of a price to pay for trying to look good for just three hours on one evening. And the worst part was, even going through all that trouble never seemed to help the cause anyway. She almost turned around to ask Ammi to cancel with Saba, but desisted. Ammi wasn’t used to having her decisions second guessed.

Ji Ammi. I will. Allah Haafiz.” She just shot back an absent-minded confirmation, turned around and left. Her mind was already busy trying to come up with some excuse in order to get out of school in time. Board exams were just a month away and it was an ‘all hands on deck’ situation for the entire staff, with the extra classes and refresher sessions happening every day.

The prinicipal, Dr. Desai, at the Spring Valley Public School, where Farzana taught English, was a very nice lady. She was particularly fond of Farzana. And if she were to know of the real reason why Farzana needed to leave early that day, she would have been more than willing to approve. But Farzana did not want to tell her about another one of ‘those’ meetings, planned for that evening because she was quite certain of the outcome of it.

Farzana did a quick count in her head. This would be the fifteenth time Shabana Baaji would be bringing over a potential suitor for Farzana. And she had no reason to believe that this time would go any different that the fourteen before it. The ‘guests’ would settle down in the drawing room and exchange pleasantries; their awkwardness evident from their furtive glances to each other. There would be a stroppy silence for the first few minutes with only Shabana Baaji’s voice piercing it every now and then, with random remarks praising Farzana. Ammi, Farhad and her youngest brother Farman would get busy inundating guests with good food and charming hospitality. Ammi’s kebabs and samosas were a brilliant ice breaker, no doubt. One bite and the seemingly edgy family would start feeling a lot more at ease.

Farzana never judged the guests for their passivity towards the whole thing. She knew they would have seen Farzana’s picture. And in all probability they would have said a flat ‘no’ right then. But Shabana Baaji would have dragged them here, nevertheless, slapping them with a clichéd ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ philosophy. And nobody could manage to upset Shabana Baaji, for the sake of their current or future progenies’ matrimonial alliances. So now that they were here, against their will, they might as well enjoy the scrumptious fare.

Shabana Baaji was the most popular matchmaker in all of Purani Dilli. She had a 100 per cent success record. All the boys and girls she had been enlisted to find a potential match for, were in her own words “saattled and heppy, masha allah”. Farzana was the only black mark in Shabana Baaji’s record book. An anomaly she was ever so determined to correct, with commendable perseverance.

Lost in those thoughts, Farzana didn’t even realise when she covered the ten-minute walk from her house to the main road, from where she took an auto to reach the school every day. That day at school was just like any other. The school was Farzana’s sanctum, so she did not even think about her home or this evening’s agenda for the most of the day. Not until the time she had to go and lie to Dr. Desai in order to leave a little early.    

*******

“Farhad, did you check for ice in the freezer? Will it be enough?”

Ji Ammi, I did … I think it’s fine,” Farhad answered his mother without taking his eyes off the video game for a second; a tad irritated that her question distracted him and he made a mistake.

“You know what … go and tell Aapa next door to keep some extra ice in her fridge for us, anyway. What if we run out?”

“Hmm...”

“And don’t tell her why. Otherwise the whole mohalla would know by the evening. Just tell her some of your friends are coming over ... to see some cricket match-shatch.

Ammi just kept on rattling instructions from the kitchen. Thanks to the cleaning taking longer than she had planned for, she was already running behind the schedule. The tikkas weren’t marinated yet, the mutton was yet to be minced and she hadn’t even started with the custard. 

Kya Ammi, there are no matches happening right now ... she would know I am lying.”

“Like she would know that! Don’t you understand? If she even gets a whiff of who is coming over and why, she will make it a point to drop in … and by tomorrow she will be gossiping with everyone about it … that old witch!”

“If she is so bad, why do we need her ice!” It was almost impossible for Farhad to let any opportunity to tease Ammi slip by. Besides, he needed this conversation to linger on for a few more minutes to finish his game.

“Don’t argue with me, badtameez! Now go ... Make yourself useful.” She almost ran out of the kitchen and snatched the joystick from his hands, the anger in her eyes finishing the reprimand for him.

“And this video game! Laahaulwilakuwwat! I swear I will throw it in the garbage one day!” She would have gone on with her rant, but her eyes fell on the clock and she was reminded of her race against the time.

Farhad just snickered at his successful attempt to get to Ammi, and got up to shut the video game down.

Farzana had been standing in the verandah for the last five minutes witnessing this whole thing. Farhad passed her by on the way out, and gave her a colluding wink. She couldn’t help but smile. She knew he was just being harmlessly naughty, in his signature style. Everyone seemed to have come up with their mechanisms to deal with these events. Ammi’s way was to start operating at 200 per cent of her capacity, so that she is too tired to worry about how the meeting would go. Farhad’s was to crack a joke or two at Ammi’s expense, a recompense for how she made him run around for errands all day. And Farzana’s was to silently acquiesce and let the day run its course.

The moment Farzana walked inside, she was handed her share of instructions. Wash up, finish lunch, take a nap till 5, then take a shower, and be dressed by 5:30. She just went about following them without a word.

When she got out of the shower, Ammi was sitting on the takhat in the dalaan, polishing silverware, for what Farzana could easily guess from past experiences, must have been the third time today. Ammi was cursing Saba loudly for being late. Farzana craned her neck to look at the clock in the drawing room. Saba was late by only 15 minutes, but even that minor tardiness was enough to ignite the bone-dry hay, which Ammi had become by this time of the day. Farzana knew Ammi’s ire had nothing to do with Saba being late. Had Saba shown up on time, Ammi would have invariably found some other reason to fume. She was clearly too tired of slogging all day in the kitchen and too anxious from wondering if all that effort would amount to anything positive in the end. She was rubbing the silverware with a ferocity which rose in direct relation to her escalating anxiety. For a few moments, Farzana just stood there drying her hair with the towel and watching the silverware being rubbed with the abrasiveness they did not deserve. The thought that her inability to attract a suitor was causing misery to even the most inanimate objects in their lives, like that silverware, almost made her chuckle, in a sad way.

“I have laid out your suit on the bed ... that pink crepe one. And my pearl earrings and bracelet too. You get dressed and start with your hair. Saba should be here any moment … kambakht!

Ammi almost always picked that very same suit and accessories for Farzana. She thought it made her look slimmer and fairer. Farzana was on the pudgy side, for her 5’2” height. Her complexion was dusky, which was most commonly found in Indian women, and yet became an extremely unfavourable attribute once they entered the marriage market. Her face had a few very noticeable acne marks, ironically, the only reminder of her blink-and-you-miss-it adolescence. The thing is, Farzana never got to be a child or a teenager. Ever since her father passed away when she was fifteen, she had been the mature, responsible adult of the family. Her father’s untimely death left her mother catatonic with grief for months and then unwell for many years after that. That made Farzana the de facto head of the family. No one bothered to check with her if she could handle the responsibilities of a sick mother and two younger brothers, not to mention her own studies. No one cared that the stress of it all wrecked havoc with her hormones, bad enough to give her a crazy outbreak of acne and triggered her weight issues. No one told her that one day strangers would be marking her down for those unfortunate pockmarks on her face and those extra few kilograms that never left. How could they, when the stressful circumstances in her life never left either?

“Sorry Farzana Baaji. Abbu said he will drop me here on his scooter and then called to say he would get late ... and you know how the rickshaw wallahs overcharge for such short distances. So I had to walk all the way over,” Saba said and entered Farzana’s room, with a pant and a sense of urgency which attested her story.

“No problem, Saba. I’ve done my hair ... just do a very basic makeup ... and …”

“What? This pony tail? No … no … no. Aunty will kill me. She is already so mad at me for being late. She clearly instructed me that she wants your hair open with curls and waves.” Saba completely disregarded Farzana’s comments with an arrogant air which signified that she only took orders from a higher authority that is Farzana’s mother. She was already searching in the cupboard for the hair dryer and brushes.

This was the other reason Farzana didn’t like Saba coming over. She used this as a chance to impress Farzana’s mother and had no respect whatsoever for what Farzana wanted. As a result, by the time Saba was done with her, Farzana always ended up looking like someone trying too hard to look younger, prettier, slimmer and more acceptable. Farzana, however, never believed that all that layers of makeup and dreamy faux curls in her hair, made her look anything but desperate. But as always, she just quietly let Saba do as she pleased.

The evening only lasted as long as the kebabs, the tikkas and the samosas did. It all went well, until Farzana was summoned to join the gang. Once she arrived, it just became a matter of how long the two parties could keep up the pretence of niceties. A few questions were heaved at Farzana by the guests, every now and then, in a tone which made it obvious that no one really cared if they were answered. Their mind about her was made up long before they even came to her place. And then, with a usual ‘We will discuss and get back to you’, the guests left. Shabana Baaji gave Ammi a celebratory smile and wink before she left, which Farzana knew was at best a premature gesture and at worst a white lie. But she also knew it would let Ammi have a few nights of peaceful sleep until the inevitable rejection call would come.

Farzana was a wonderful woman. But that was the first problem with her candidature in the marriage market. She wasn’t a girl anymore. She was a 34-year-old woman and no amount of Saba’s expert makeup could hide that fact. Farzana never wanted to anyway. She wasn’t ashamed of how she breached the ‘acceptable window for marriage’ as per the popular opinion because she used those years to rebuild a broken family. She took care of her mother and got her treated, educated both her brothers and all this while finishing her Masters in English Literature. She was in fact about to complete her Phd soon. But she had learned during the last few years of ‘groom hunting’ that her education and promising career weren’t going to appeal to a “wanted tall, slim beautiful, homely girl…” audience.

******

“Ammi not well. Rushing her to the nursing home. Come ASAP” read the text from Farman. Farzana reached the nursing home within an hour of receiving it. She learned from Farman that Ammi received a call from Shabana Baaji in the morning, which was all she needed to know to build up the events that led to her mom’s anxiety attack. Ammi was asleep thanks to a few injections the doctors had given her. The doctor said she had a severe anxiety attack. She would need to be on medications for a week and come again for a follow-up after that. But she would be fine enough to be taken home in a few hours. When Ammi regained consciousness, she didn’t speak much. Everyone expected her to be a little groggy from the sedatives so no one even bothered her much.

When they got home, Farman and Farhad helped her to the bed. Farzana went straight to the kitchen to make some green tea which always helped Ammi calm down.

“Here Ammi, it’s jasmine and lemon with a spoonful of honey. Just the way you like it.” She offered her the cup, hoping to get a word from her. Ammi had been really quiet since she woke up. It felt really odd. Ammi just took the cup without as much as looking at Farzana.

“Ammi is there anything else I can get you? Are you hungry? Do you need some biscuits with this?” Farzana tried again.

Ammi still did not respond. But it was clear to Farzana that she was sullen.

“Ammi, do you need something?”

“YES! I need you to lose some weight ... so people just don’t keep rejecting you!”

“Ammi!” Farzana gasped and almost stepped back a little with the horror of her mother’s tone and words.

“Ammi! What is wrong with you? Just drink your tea.” Farman jumped in to Farzana’s rescue.

“What? I’m only repeating what everyone else tells Shabana Baaji after meeting your sister.”

Farzana just stood there like a statue, tears rolling down her cheeks. It didn’t matter to her that everyone said that to Shabana Baaji. But it shattered her that Ammi believed it enough to stab her with that comment like that.

“Ammi ... shut up!” Farman tried to put an end to it.

“No, I will not. She is not the only one I have to worry about. I have two sons to marry off too. You are young, you won’t understand. I am already getting such good proposals for Farhad. His shop is doing well now, Masha Allah, but where I’m I going to put his family once he is married? We have only two bedrooms. Where am I going to put my daughters-in-law and grandchildren?” Ammi just rambled on, as if talking to herself.

Farhad had by then heard the commotion and joined them too. He too jumped in to his sister’s rescue.

“Ammi, it is not Aapa’s fault. Don’t talk to her that way.”

“Yes, you are right. It is my fault. When the other girls from the mohalla would obsess about beauty and fashion, your sister would stay cooped up inside her room surrounded by her books for days on end ... and I encouraged her. I thought there will always be time for all that once she has finished college. But she wanted more! First the Masters and now Phd. Meanwhile, all the other girls got married and had children. And all your Aapa will have for company for the rest of her life is her books. Great!”

“Ammi that’s enough of that! Aapa, you please go to your room. Farman, get Aapa some water.” Farhad could not stand Ammi’s singeing comments and his sister’s silent sobs anymore. He decided to put an end to this.

But Ammi wasn’t done quite yet. Even as Farzana was being led away, she could hear Ammi arguing with Farhad.

“Ammi, what is wrong with you? Why did you charge on Aapa like that? You know her weight is because of her hormonal problem. The doctor said...”

“Please! Don’t try to teach me. All this doctor-shoctor and his new-age nonsense. She just never cared enough for her body. And now we all are paying for it. You think it is easy for me at this age? Entertaining guests after guests and then hoping against hope, only to be told by Shabana Baaji how unattractive my daughter is? Answering the mohalla wallahs questions………….. ”

“What can she do? You have no…”

“Oh! Look at you being all gallant now and taking her side. What happened when I had to refuse Aaliya’s proposal or you? Where was all this love for your Aapa then, huh? Weren’t you the one who asked me ‘how long are we supposed to hold off our lives for her’?”

Ammi! Shusssh! What the hell is wrong with you? Aapa will hear you.”

Farzana did hear it. Every single word. She finally outran the sound of those caustic words when she reached her room and shut the door behind her. But she knew she will never outrun this feeling that suffocated her at the moment. That her own mother felt this way, the only person whom Farzana assumed to really be in a position to value all she had done for this family, broke something inside her, irreparably.

Aaliya lived with her family two lanes down the road. Farhad had always liked her. And when her family finally approached his Ammi for his hand, he couldn’t believe his luck. But they came with a deal-breaker clause – that the wedding had to be solemnised within the next six to eight months. That was something Ammi could neither agree to nor renegotiate. What would she tell the world if she marries her son off before his elder sister? That would create even more problems for Farzana in getting a suitor. Farzana remembered how Farhad didn’t speak to her properly for a few months after the whole thing fell through. She, howbeit, just assumed that Farhad was upset. She had no clue, he had been blaming her for this whole thing.

******

Farzana didn’t sleep for a single moment that night. Her mind kept going to that day, five years ago, when she came back from work a few hours earlier than usual. She had a nasty headache. She didn’t even inform Ammi because she knew she will worry herself sick by the time she gets home. As she stepped into the verandah, she could hear loud voices coming from the drawing room on the other end. One was Ammi’s and the other was Shabana Baaji’s; and they weren’t sounding friendly. What she heard next made her freeze where she was standing.

“I cannot believe you are turning this down, Najma! This is an excellent proposal. In fact the best ever! Aarif is an excellent match for Farzana. His niece is in Farzana’s school. He met Farzana during the last Annual Day function in school. He is so impressed with her...” Shabana Baaji spoke in an irritated tone, of someone who couldn’t believe their expert opinion was being shot down.

“I know Shabana Baaji. But you know how things are. Farhad is yet to establish himself ... Farman is still in school. He is brilliant just like his sister. He wants to do his L.L.B. You know how expensive the course is. Farzana is the only one handling all responsibilities...”

“So? That doesn’t mean she should continue to do it forever.”

“No. No. Of course not. But right now, we are not ready.”

“Najma, pardon my directness ... You know how much I care for you and your children ... Farzana is 30. She is well settled in her career. She is ready and that is all that matters. Besides, that Farhad of yours ... he has been shirking his responsibilities for a long time now ... I think he will keep doing that till the time he knows Farzana is around to cover for him. I mean he is 25 now and still has no clue as to what he wants to do with his life!”

“Oh no, that’s not true Shabana Baaji. It’s just that you know he was never too good in his studies ... so building a career isn’t easy for him, but he does have this business idea…”

“Which will be what, his third brilliant, business idea? And that’s just this year ... every few months he comes up with some ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes and wastes whatever precious little savings you have. Then, for months he sits and mourns the losses and curses his fate ... even I have seen this cycle enough times to know it well.”

“So what do you think I should do? Because clearly, you think I am incapable of deciding what is good for my own children?” Ammi couldn’t stand someone telling her she was wrong. Especially when deep in her heart, she knew that she was.

“No need to get snappish with me, Najma. You know me well. I call it as I see it.”

“Oh! So just what do your ever-so-wise eyes see Shabana Baaji?”

“That you are killing that poor girl’s chances of having a happy, married life, only because you don’t have the guts to straighten up your elder son. Farzana has her own set of problems. She isn’t a looker and we all know that. Then there is her weight problem. You always worried if we would ever find a family which will truly value her for all that she is ... a talented, mature and responsible girl. And now, allah ka shukr hai, luckily we have found just that ... And you are turning all that away because you don’t know where the next month’s pay cheque will come from, once Farzana’s gone? The poor girl has been taking care of all of you since she was 15. Now Farhad has to pull up his socks...”

“Shabana Baaji, I think that is quite enough!”Ammi had never used that tone with Shabana Baaji.

“Yes. You are right! I have had enough of your drama too, Najma. I did this because you asked me to find her a match. And every single time, I come to you with one, you find some or the other ridiculous excuse to turn it down. I am beginning to think, you do not want to marry Farzana at all ... or maybe not just as yet ... not until she has fixed all your problems ... But meanwhile, for the sake of the world, you want to keep up the façade of a concerned mother who wants what is best for her daughter ... But know this ... When Farzana is older and the marriage prospects for her have all dried up, you will beg me for help and I wouldn’t be able to do anything, even if I want to...”

Farzana just turned around and walked out of her house. For hours that day, she sat in the nearby Municipal Park, trying to get over it all. Some truths about our lives are so painful that we do not even want to repeat them to ourselves. This was that truth of her life. She needed to put her mother’s and her brothers’ needs before her own, even if sometimes those needs were unreasonable and agonisingly excessive. Her mother never said those actual words to her, but right in this moment, Farzana could see how she had always made that quite clear.

It’s funny how her mother never even asked her what she wanted. Because had she, she would have known that the last thing on Farzana’s list of priorities was marriage. She wanted to start with her PhD as soon as possible. Build a strong career in academics. Perhaps, go on to write the kind of literature that moved her, inspired her, entertained her. But those were the kind of dreams she could never talk to her Ammi about. Just like she would never be able to talk to her about the nightmare she just witnessed in her home.

******

Farzana settled down with her tea, next to the window of her new flat, in the sprawling residential campus of the Spring Valley International School in Dehradun. She had been here a week, but she felt she still hadn’t had enough of the beautiful vista that greeted her eyes, every time she looked through this window.

Spring Valley Group of Institutes had started an ambitious world class school in Dehradun last year. They wanted one of their best principals, Dr. Desai, to run it starting the next academic year. Dr. Desai, in turn wanted a coterie of the best of her staff, to come along with her to Dehradun. She propositioned Farzana too. But Farzana never gave that offer a serious thought. She felt she didn’t have a reason to. Not until the day of Ammi’s outburst. And from that day on, when she started considering the proposal, it seemed to make all the sense in the world. The salary was more than double of what Farzana was currently making. The job profile was better, too. And the best part was that Farzana would be able to stay close to her Phd guide, Dr. Desai.

Ammi, as expected, didn’t get behind the idea. But Farzana had never approached her with the tone of assertiveness and finality with which she did this time, when she announced her decision to everyone. Ammi was well aware of the line she crossed that day; an act which she knew changed the very fabric of her relationship with her daughter forever. She knew, now she would never be able to look Farzana in the eye and command her to do something she doesn’t want. Besides, her protests found no support in Farhad and Farman. Farzana’s brothers knew their sister had done more than her share for the family and understood her need to spring out independently now. Besides, in the last one month since that incident, home environment had taken a turn for the worst. This separation of sorts, seemed to be the best solution for everyone.

Farzana took a long sip of the tea and smiled as the cool breeze brushed her face, and teased her hair. She loved her family. Moving away didn’t change that at all; it never would. She would continue to financially support them for as long as they would need her to. But she had now realised that even the most important relationships in our lives sometimes get to a point where a little distance could do everyone some good. She knew Ammi would never say it, but deep inside her heart, she was guilty about how she de-prioritised Farzana’s needs for years, because of her sons. What else would explain Ammi labouring evening after evening to entertain Shabana Baaji and her guests, under the misapprehension that this much delayed gesture will fix everything. It was a frustrating waste of time, and Farzana needed for it to stop. She also knew that her brothers only tread the path her mother laid down for them. But now that they had come into their own, they supported Farzana’s move and that’s most important.

She had spent enough time paying her dues to every single relationship in her life. Now she needed to start working on her relationship with herself.

She sipped the tea again. It was really good. Or maybe she just thought it was, just like she had been finding everything better since she left home. It’s amazing how the liberation of our mind, heightens just about any and every sense in our body.

She remembered, the last few moments before she left home for Dehradun. Farhad and Farman helped her put the luggage in the taxi and hugged her goodbye. They seemed happy for their sister. Ammi stood sulking, on the pavement by the road, her gaze fixed somewhere far away. Farzana went to hug her. She hugged back, but it was cold and involuntary. Farzana wasn’t surprised. Someone who had no tolerance for even the slightest defiance from her children, was now required to stand by helplessly and witness Farzana pull this coup. She turned around to get into the car because any more delay meant, she wouldn’t be able to make it to Dehradun before sunset. But just as she was about to get in, she realised, one last thing needed to be said.

“Ammi ... take care of yourself. And don’t worry, I will be fine. And I believe you will be fine too. After all, you now have all the space you needed ... for your daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Allah Hafiz.

Farzana would never forget the look on Ammi’s face at that moment, awash with contrition. She knew that was the closest thing to an apology she would ever get from her. And that, was all she needed.

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Author
Radhika Maira Tabrez

Radhika Maira Tabrez

Written: 12 Stories

Member Since: 08-Jun-2015

Country: India

Category

Emotional Touch