A Nameless Relationship
Lying dormant for half a century in my subconscious is this tale which was then a very vivid chapter of my life. She was neither a sister nor an adopted one, which she could have become by tying the sacred thread, “Rakhi” on my wrist during the Festival of “Rakshabandhan.”Not having done so, we could not claim a sibling connection, yet my love for her was genuine. What kind of love was it? It certainly could not be romantic as during the early seventies in India a substantially younger Hindu man, aged 19, and an older Hindu divorcee woman, from a Muslim husband, aged 25, with a four-year-old son precluded that. She was just my precious, no name relative. My unshakeable connection to her occurred during her dad’s passing away.
Light infiltrating from the forty-watt bulb from the veranda outside illuminated the darkroom in a mellow yellow glow. There was the silence of death, not in an oppressive sort of way, but in the tranquility of a soul passing peacefully in sleep. No long illness, no hospitalization, no needle pokes in the veins. Mr.Chaturvedi had lived his 73 years, leaving behind an orphan, whose relationship to me was a feeling; pious, firm and unwavering with no name that could define it. What was it? I couldn't lay my finger on it. However, this much I knew-it was exalted.
She rang my doorbell with insistence, and when I opened it, I could see she was distraught. When she asked me to follow her to her house next door, I immediately complied. She stood in front of me, a tear slid down one eye and then another one broke loose in the other. Impulsively, I gently wiped her tears with my fingers and then cupped her face in my hands. My heart went out to this forlorn woman, all alone, in grief. I let her cry, allowing her to let it all out. I could feel her loneliness and wished she had a brother to console her. This is when my resolve solidified. I would shield her always
Aastha sat in the rocking chair mutely sobbing, numb at what had befallen her. She
lost her mom a year ago to cancer and now her dad. Her marriage to Iqbal had ended in a divorce. Today, she felt all alone in this nasty world, where she would have to fend for herself and her child. Her dad lied on his cot and one could hardly tell if he was asleep or dead. Earlier that day she went to wake him from his afternoon nap to come to the dining room for dinner. He had slept longer than usual and when after several nudges he did not respond, she knew he had passed away to his heavenly abode.
Night fell. We sat through it, mostly in silence, except when she got up to make tea or rummage through her chest of drawers, while I sat on the sofa. Her son, Imtiaz, was sleeping in the other bedroom. That long night, when unknown tender feelings wafted in the air between us, was the beginning of our no-name bond. It was always there, like the sweet fragrance floating from a shrub of jasmine flowers in evening twilight hours. The next day I called her immediate relatives and made funeral arrangements.
Aastha had married Iqbal, a Muslim prince of a small principality, now defunct as the central Indian government had abrogated his princedom through an Act of Parliament. The marriage was opposed by her parents, full-blooded Brahmins, orthodox and unyielding. She was attracted to his artistic mind, which churned out original Urdu and English poetry. In fact, he wrote for her, about her, and delivered his love messages in poems. They were soon married in civil court without parents being present. Things would have worked out except for various reasons, some external and others inherent in their personalities, which were a reflection, of each person’s upbringing.
Aastha was born to a mild, accepting, liberal Hindu household with a strong bond between dad and mom. Iqbal was the son of divorced parents, his upbringing being in the hands of his dad. The reason for his parents’ divorce was the relationship his dad had with a courtesan. So, on the one hand, Aastha had a strong belief in the institution of marriage, in Iqbal’s case, it was not tethered to any ideology. For him its sanctity was transactional. Like his dad, what caused the rift was his affair with a school teacher. They divorced four years into their marriage.
A bunch of older kids encircled and tortured Imtiaz. He lost his tiffin box to them and now they were hurling obscenities. They called him a half-breed and a mutt. They threw jabs at him and he was being forced to touch the feet of all the seniors. This enactment was nothing new as this drama was a daily affair. They goaded him out of the dining hall to its back, where there was no chance of a staff member coming. He cowered, felt powerless and hated every moment of his torture. The ringleader, the class bully of the sixth standard, Surendra Bhalla, wreaked havoc on this child of a Muslim father and a Hindu mother. Surendra Bhalla's dad was an RSS member, the militant wing of the Hindu political party, Jan Sangh.
Aastha was the ill-fated mother of Imtiaz Quereshi when she and Iqbal divorced four years into their marriage. She worked as a nurse at the hospital associated with the Bhopal Medical College. She kept her surname of Kaul, after the marriage, but Iqbal prevailed in naming their first-born, after one year of marriage, with a Muslim name. The couple retained their respective religious identities but Imtiaz was Imtiaz Quereshi. She could have changed his name now but felt honor-bound to her ex-husband’s wishes to retain it. Further, she wasn’t sure about Iqbal’s reaction as he still had visitation rights. When she asked Iqbal as to how she should proceed about the bullying and harassment of Imtiaz, he just ignored it. The school authorities didn’t fare any better. They said they would look into the matter, but nothing changed. Surendra Bhalla’s father was a big donor to the school.
It was a nice sunny afternoon in February when she decided to surprise Imtiaz by taking him out early from school and eating lunch at Quality's, followed by a matinee movie at the Odeon cinema. Ben Hur with Charlton Heston in the lead role was the talk of the town, especially the chariot race scene. Upon reaching the school she went straight to the principal’s office where she found Imtiaz waiting for her. She had already telephoned the principal’s office that she would take Imtiaz out of school early. She had thought that Imtiaz would be happy about leaving school early, but here it was a different story.
Aastha addressing her son said,
“Beta, son, how was your day today?”
Imtiaz was a little crestfallen and said, “Mom, I don’t have my tiffin box. They took it away.” He further described his agony, “They also slapped me. I did not have a good day at school today.”
Aastha already had a meeting with the principal regarding bullying by Surender Bhalla. She wanted to turn the rickshaw around and go back to school but decided against it. This was a day she had picked to be a fun day for Imtiaz. She didn’t want to mar it by having a shouting match with the principal.
Aastha decided to cheer up her son, said, “Don’t worry, I will buy you a new tiffin box. But guess where we are going today?
“We are going to have lunch and then have tutti-frutti ice cream at Quality’s. Won’t that be fun?
“Mom, instead of having tutti-frutti, can I have Cassata ice cream?”
“Of course, this is your day, and this is not all. We are going to the movies”
“Which movie mom? Is it a Hindi or an English one?”
“We are going to see Ben Hur at the Odeon. Would you like that?”
“Oh, mom. I would love that. Kids in class are talking about its chariot race scene. You are so nice, mom. You are the best, ever.”
While this placated Imtiaz for the time being, the bigger story of his bullying at school was becoming a prime concern. It had started six months ago when Imtiaz started to exhibit unusual behavior. Usually a mild-mannered child, he was expressing anger, irritability, and defiance. He often did not sleep well and was not doing as well in his studies. His appetite was also subdued but he had not become a bad eater because she cooked things that he liked. He complained often about tummy aches, not wanting to go to school. With no help from Iqbal, and the principal’s deaf ear she thought of changing schools. Of course, that could not be done in mid-term, she had to wait it out till the time the new school year began.
In the interim, she read pertinent literature to ascertain the best way for Imtiaz to cope. For trivial meanness, she taught him to stay cool and calm and not to react. As examples, “I am not your friend” or “you can’t sit here,” you should just shrug and walk away. If a kid says that you are not smart, then just say, “so what?” In reality, these lessons stayed on as lessons only; Imtiaz found coping as very hard.
Her own treatment by the society of Hindus and Muslims wasn't faring any better. When she and Iqbal were together, they had some friends in both communities, though not many, because, in the beginning, they didn't need much company as they were so in love and loved to spend time with each other. Later, when cracks began to develop in their marriage, they did not have the togetherness to attend gatherings. Now, her circle of friends was very limited. Even among the ones she had, there was no warm and fuzzy relationship. Once during Holi time, a member of the housing society refused Gale Milna, a ritual during festival time when people embrace each other, to her. The cause had to be because she was a divorcee or the divorcee of a Muslim husband, or both.
Imtiaz was exposed to the mosque by his father when he was a toddler from the age of two to four. After the divorce, he went once a month when Iqbal, on one of his visiting days, took him there. On the days when he was with his father, his two aunts were with him. So, Imtiaz had a fair amount of Muslim immersion. He attended the Muslim festivals of Id-ul-Fitr and Bakri-Id at his aunt’s place. For his Hindu heritage, he went to the temple once or twice a month and Astha had a home temple. For community involvement, he had uncles, aunts, and other Hindu friends with whom he shared day to day living and festivals like Holi, Diwali, and Dussehra. But, here too, he felt like an outsider. Aastha's parents, when they were alive, had a tepid relationship with Imtiaz. However, things improved when mother and son came to live with them after the divorce At this juncture, India didn't look very appealing to Aastha. She decided to flee the country, for the USA as visas for nurses were readily available. She applied and very soon she was on a British Airways flight for New York where she had found a job with The New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital.
I stopped in my tracks, exulted in the face to face confrontation with my no-name relative, my darling Aastha. It happened on a Monday in the shoebox room of the Temple in Queens, which I visited once in a blue moon on Mondays. Actually, never! The usual day when my wife Bhoomi, my daughter Chitra and I visited the temple was Sunday. Then too, only once a month. This Monday trip was because the two had gone to visit some friends in Fairfax, Virginia and I was left alone in the City. I saved Sunday for football watching, so took the day off on Monday to make the trip to visit the gods. That encounter was incredibly lucky, a million in one chance. But, it was ordained as our lives intermingled after that.
We were both staring at each other with a glint of recognition in our eyes. Precisely at the exact same moment, we spoke
Aastha verbalized first, “You must be Daksh.”
“Oh my God, I must be dreaming.” I said “Aastha what are you doing here? When did you arrive in America?” With that, I propelled myself towards her, placing my palm on her shoulder, repeating my surprise at seeing her.
“Daksh, I have been in the States for the past year,” Aastha replied, “I work for the New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital on William Street as a nurse.” Expressing incredulity, she added “What a chance meeting. I can’t believe that I am seeing you. What a pleasant surprise! Where do you live?”
“I live in Greenwich Village close to my work at Goldman Sachs on West Street. I have lived there since I graduated from Columbia University.”
We were so aghast at this remarkable coincidence, that I overlooked the eight-year-old boy standing next to Aastha. She, too, was oblivious to her surroundings until it occurred to her to introduce her child.
Aastha beckoned her son saying, “Imtiaz, touch your uncle’s feet” In India, this custom is for showing respect to an elder.
When the little boy touched my feet, I was overwhelmed. I took him in a warm embrace and hugged him, saying,
“Imtiaz, you were so young when I last saw you. It’s good to see you again. Let’s not part company this time.”
After that, they exchanged telephone numbers and addresses and agreed that Aastha and Imtiaz would visit us next Sunday. I told Aastha that I lived with my wife, Bhoomi, and a daughter, Chitra, who was four years old
Bhoomi cooked all day to host Aastha and Imtiaz. She knew about Aastha and her story as told by me, but, of course, that story was incomplete. Much had happened to mother and son since I had left India. They arrived around six PM. I buzzed them in when they rang our doorbell. Aastha had brought flowers for Bhoomi who placed them in a vase. We all settled in the family room of my two-bedroom apartment.
“Tell me about your life these days,” I asked Aastha
Aastha told me that she worked at this hospital as a nurse and Imtiaz was studying at a public primary school in Manhattan. He was picked up in the morning before her departure for work and was dropped off at the hospital. She had obtained special permission from the HR department for this unusual arrangement. Imtiaz stayed in the conference room and when the room was needed, he shifted to the cafeteria. During this time, he worked on his homework. Later, mother and son took the subway home.
We were all seated comfortably with a fire roaring in the fireplace. It was snowing outside, which we could see from the large windows of the apartment. I offered drinks and we all nibbled on appetizers. Imtiaz and Chitra sat at the dining table and played a game of Snakes and Ladders.
Chitra showed Imtiaz some drawings she had done. One was a likeliness of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. We had taken her to Washington DC, where we visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. From a book purchased there, she did pictures of the carnivores and herbivores. Some other drawings were of Allosaurus, Triceratops, and Brachiosaurus which filled four pages of her sketchbook. They were the fledgling efforts of a four-year-old, not perfect, but still a happy likeliness to the actual pictures. Imtiaz showed amazement, he said,
“Chitra, you are such a great sketcher. I am sure when you grow up you will become an artist.”
“Bhaiyya, elder brother, do you really think so?.”
“Not just think so, but I know so.” Giving her more encouragement he said,
“Besides being an artist, you will become a world-famous painter.”
Soon it was dinner time, and everybody was seated at the dining table. The meal began with:
Tomato soup with croutons
Followed by: Chicken Tikka Masala, Minced Mutton Curry with peas, Slipper/shoe Kebab,
Several veggies cooked in Indian spices
Dumplings made from gram flour in a gram flour gravy
Naans and Basmati Rice
Tomato, cucumber, and onion salad with lemon wedges
And for dessert, carrot cake
The party was a smash hit which led Bhoomi to invite Aastha and Imtiaz to stay overnight. Going home in the snow and subway at a late hour would be tedious. Aastha and Imtiaz could sleep in Chitra’s room and Chitra could bunk with her parents. Having decided to stay, the kids went upstairs to their bedrooms. Imtiaz spent some time in Chitra's room and finally, the two kids went to sleep at 10 PM.
There was a lot to catch up with. When I left India, fissures were developing in Aastha’s marriage. Iqbal and she were quarreling and Imtiaz was two years old. I wanted to know what had happened to their marriage. The tale I got was troubling. She told me about her divorce after four years of marriage and the tale of woe thereafter. Her battling with the school authorities over Imtiaz’s bullying, getting no place with it, the change of school, and not having friends either Muslim or Hindu. Her parents, though communicating, were not on the best of terms with them. After her mom’s death, the divorce happened, and that’s when she and Imtiaz moved to her dad’s house. Other than a couple of cousins, she was a pariah in the Hindu community. Daksh and Bhoomi were very sad to hear Aastha’s story.
It was a long night as the three of us sat huddled in front of the toasty fireplace. Bhoomi served a rose’ wine which we sipped.
Aastha broke down and through teary eyes narrated to us the ugliness in her life during the past few years. She could do this as she felt she was finally talking to some people that really cared. Tonight was a continuation of that fateful night when her dad had passed away. It was a solid bonding that took place. While reminiscing about the night, I began to feel that I was Almighty’s chosen one to help Aastha and Imtiaz.
That night, she bared the details of her marriage to Iqbal. Between sobs, she told us that Iqbal was unfaithful and cheated on her, having an affair with an Anglo-Indian girl. She told us how he did not return home for several days in succession saying he traveled out of town on work, and how she found out about the affair, which was when, after an out of town trip, she found a woman’s bra and a teddy in his suitcase.
“Iqbal, you have some ladies’ undergarments in your suitcase. Who do they belong to? They certainly do not belong to me.”
Iqbal ignored her comments feigning that he had not heard them. Aastha repeated her question,
“Where did this bra and teddy come from?”
Iqbal showed irritation at the question.
“How do I know?”
“If you don’t, then who would. They are in your suitcase.”
“Maybe you should ask that question to the hotel’s housekeeping. Maybe by mistake, they put someone else’s garments in my suitcase.”
Before Aastha could follow up with another question, Iqbal left the room. The next few days were caustic. Battle lines were drawn. Aastha wanted an answer and Iqbal was not going to give one, only oblique lies, not the truth. It was at this point that Aastha hired a detective. Results tumbled in within a week. She had pictures of Iqbal and Susan Braganza, a teacher at the local convent school.
What followed were two years of in and out of this illicit affair. He would say he was sorry and promised that he would never see her again, but that promise lasted four months without her and then two months with her, followed by the same pattern several times. It was a time when they reconciled until the reconciliation was breached. She kept hoping that her husband would come home to stay. That did not happen and so their marriage fell apart.
This night was very much like the night of several years ago in Bhopal, but today, there were three people who were connecting in the ether, instead of two. Bhoomi took the initiative and coaxed Aastha to vent. She asked her to let her sorrow surface. Aastha began to cry. These were tears of relief and happiness. She felt fully secure in my house. I was glad for that because those were the feelings I wanted to convey to her, she now had a family and should not feel alone in this world. I just wanted to be true to the resolve I had made to myself many years ago, I would always protect her and that's what I was going to do from now.
I felt glad that Bhoomi took to her as I did. It made my job that much easier. After all the venom was out, Bhoomi took Aastha to the bathroom and dabbed her face with cold water. Aastha was now refreshed and we broached another subject.
“How are things in the US,” Bhoomi asked “You have been here for a year. Have you made any friends?”
“Since Indians are generally well regarded, I do not have any overt discrimination at work.” Recounting some more, she said, “but tribalism does exist. White folks generally stick with each other and they have a superiority complex. So, bigotry exists, but it is not very marked”
Bhoomi liked Aastha’s candid observations. Aastha described some more. She said
“The makeup of the floor is diverse. We have Latinos, Blacks, Eastern Europeans, and South Americans. So, I blend in rather easily and am happy in my work environment.”
After these explanations, she addressed the question of discrimination. “A test of equal treatment will happen when it will be time for a promotion. Will I be superseded by a white employee?” Regarding friends at work, she said, “I do have friends at work, but they are just that, work friends.”
On the subject of being accepted by the Hindu or the Muslim community she had this to say,
“It is a challenge when I try to mix in either the Hindu community or Muslim. Imtiaz’s last name of Quereshi is damnation with the Hindus and my last name of Kaul is not acceptable to the Muslims. As a matter of fact, when attending a party at a Muslim friend’s residence, I was told by a young and then a middle-aged Muslim man, that I should change my name to my son’s, namely Quereshi and that I should embrace Islam. After that, I stopped going to such parties.”
Finally, on the subject of race relations and social interactions, Aastha bared her experiences,
“As a divorcee with a child, who is half Muslim, is an issue at Hindu gatherings. When I dress up nicely in a sari, many men flirt with me. They want to go out with me, but I have declined all of them since I didn’t get their good vibes towards Imtiaz. So Bhoomi, I have a couple of so-so Hindu friends and then work friends at the workplace only.”
Aastha had spoken a lot in one go. Instead of feeling tired, she was rejuvenated. In fact, from the time she met Daksh at the temple in Queens to today, she was on a chariot ride to heaven. She felt emboldened, on-the-basis of a long-ago promise. A promise, that was intangible, an unspoken word, by a human she valued highly. Today she felt, she was standing on solid ground.
At this juncture, Bhoomi took a lottery. How many for ginger tea? Daksh was the largest affirmative voice. While Daksh turned on the TV, the two girls went to the kitchen and were busy there. My feelings at this point were soaring. I never imagined that life’s surprises would land my no-name relative, Aastha, at my doorstep. I knew God had given me a task, which was to right the capsized canoe of Aastha and Imtiaz. I made a solemn promise to myself, that Bhoomi and I would find a suitable husband for Aastha and a father for Imtiaz. In fact, I knew just the man who could fill these britches.
After the tea break at night, they went to bed. The morning saw the adults getting up before the children. To my question of Is Imtiaz well-adjusted at his school, Aastha said,
“Imtiaz’s story is quite a bit more checkered than mine. He has faced discrimination both in overt and subtle ways. Examples of overt are racist comments and taunts at his being a Muslim. He doesn't know quite how to react. So, he started staying away from all the kids. Here too, like in India, a group of kids regularly forced him to give them his lunch. However, unlike India, the principal put an end to this nightmare. The subtle discrimination is in the form of just ignoring him and not including him in friendly activities. However, all in all, he is not disturbed and pays attention to his studies. He is doing well in class.”
Aastha then shed some light on her efforts to expose Imtiaz to Muslim culture and religion,
“I have attempted to keep his Muslim heritage alive. His dad would take him to the mosque fairly-frequently. I tried to emulate that by taking him for Friday prayers at the Masjid in Brooklyn. The genders are segregated, so he could not come with me. In fact, I did not feel like going in, so I sent him in with an official. I did not feel comfortable as there were no windows and there were surveillance cameras all around. The entry room was small and lower than the standard height. It was a creepy place and it felt like someone was watching me. I did not go there again.”
She then recounted her experience at another mosque,
“After that, I googled for mosques in New York City and found one on the NYU campus. My experience there was much better. It is located on one floor of a multilevel building. It has windows that are larger and go from the floor to the ceiling. The congregation is primarily made up of students and faculty of NYU as well as other educated Muslims. It seemed like it was a liberal group. Here also, I just did not feel like going in. Sending Imtiaz with officials seemed somewhat risky. The result is that we have not been going to a mosque at all. Imtiaz has been very sporting. He says it is not necessary to go. But I do know, that since he has gone from childhood, he would like to participate. As far as immersion with the community is concerned, I am a failure there also. Many gatherings have quite a few single men but I am afraid of them.”
After this first meeting, Aastha and Imtiaz started to meet us fairly frequently. In fact, since Aastha did not have a car, all of us would load up in my Beamer to go to the temple in Queens. Both, mom and son, had begun to show signs of returning self-confidence, the kind of confidence that had existed during the good years of Aastha’s marriage to Iqbal. I then made arrangements for Imtiaz to go to the mosque with a Muslim friend at work. Things were looking up for them.
Before meeting me, going to the temple in Queens was quite a long ride on the subway. When she did not feel like traveling that far she started to visit the Sikh Gurudwara of Manhattan on 30th St. Kirtan, a religious service was held twice a month on the second and fourth Tuesday. The times were from 7 to 10 PM. They arrived there at seven, stayed for an hour, ate at the “langar,” a free restaurant offered by the Gurdwara, and headed back for home. Here the congregation was mixed, men and women standing, side-by-side. She felt safe here. Of course, she dressed conservatively so as not to attract attention.
Here she noticed a handsome Punjabi man who surreptitiously glanced at her. He would generally arrive a little after seven and move up to the row where she was standing. Although not overt, she could tell he was interested in her. She enjoyed this approval and would intermittently watch him from the corner of her eye. In fact, once in the shoebox room, he shyly said hi. She responded back with a hi. She liked his demeanor, being low-key. As weeks passed, she began to enjoy her evenings at the Gurdwara. Their acquaintance had germinated from a hi to know each other’s names. She found out that his name was Balbir Chadha and he was an assistant professor of economics at NYU. He was probably about thirty years old. She introduced Imtiaz, and he did not ask the reason for a Muslim name. He asked if she would like to go out to dinner. She just politely declined. She was afraid of being hurt since she did not know how he viewed Imtiaz.
Now, feeling a little sure about herself, she harbored a desire to go out with him. While he was not very friendly with Imtiaz, he was cordial enough. When Aastha met us the next time, she talked with Bhoomi about Balbir. That night Bhoomi told me. I was overjoyed. This is what I wanted to do for her, but she was doing it herself. Bhoomi and I decided that we should invite Balbir to dinner. We ran this by Aastha. Bhoomi could tell that Aastha was delirious. She really did like the guy. So next time when she met him, she asked if he would like to come to dinner at her brother’s place. His obvious answer was yes and so, I gave Balbir a call.
“Hello, my name is Daksh, am I talking to Balbir.”
“Yes, Daksh. I expected a call from you. Aastha told me about her long-lost friend from India, the one who is like a brother.”
“Yes Balbir, our story begins in Bhopal. She was a neighbor, and a very good one at that, living in an adjacent house. My trips to her home were memorable. She always greeted me with a smile, was a gracious hostess, and she fed me well. Her Dum aaloo, a potato dish, was mouth-watering.”
“I am jealous, but not for long. I plan to see more of her.”
“ That’s a splendid idea. I will let you in on a secret. She loves poetry and we used to discuss Chaucer, Wadsworth, and Shelley. During her High School years, she went to a convent school run by nuns from Ireland. English Literature was one of her subjects, as was mine. She helped me in my class assignment of critiquing Macbeth and Mayor of Casterbridge.
“ I never knew about this aspect of her life. While I was not an English Litt student, I did like reading English novels. You’ve given me a new sphere in which we could converse. I like French novelists, Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo”
“Balbir, what if we continue this discussion at my place this Saturday. Would you have the time to spend an afternoon and then dinner at our place. I will invite Aastha and Imtiaz also.”
“Sure Daksh. I am so looking forward to meeting you and your family. I will come.”
Daksh gave Balbir his address.
Both Bhoomi and I were very excited. Bhoomi went to an exclusive Indian boutique on Fifth Avenue and bought for Aastha a cute Salwar Kameez, tunic/pants, Pakistani style (See attached Exhibit on Salwar Kameez-Pakistani) in a hunter green tunic with allover embroidery in white thread, and an eight-inch embroidered border and a sage color palazzo pant with ditzy embroidery. The tunic had three-quarter length sleeves with embroidered edges and the dupatta---extra length long scarf---was in one color of sage matching the pants color. The outfit looked smashing. She wore tear-drop earrings made of gold and a bindi---a decorative dot on the forehead---in Hunter Green. And finally, high heels in Hunter Green. Bhoomi had gotten all Aastha’s measurements and she was to dress up when she got to our place. Bhoomi also got an outfit for Imtiaz.
The auspicious day arrived. Bhoomi took pleasure in dressing up Aastha. Aastha was naturally pretty, but with the outfit and accessories, she looked stunning. Much as Aastha enjoyed this attention, Bhoomi enjoyed giving it. Bhoomi treated Aastha like an elder sister There was a sense of delight in the air. Once again, Bhoomi cooked a sumptuous meal, waiting for the arrival of the guest. Soon the doorbell rang and I buzzed Balbir in. He was dressed sharply in gray pants and a navy-blue double-breasted blazer with a matching tie in burgundy. Aastha was standing behind me to greet Balbir. Balbir had two boxes in a bag. I invited Balbir in and soon we were all seated except for Bhoomi, who after pleasantries went back into the kitchen.
Balbir took out two jewelry boxes and handed them to Aastha. Aastha protested by saying that this was not necessary. She opened the first box and was astonished. It contained a rather big oval diamond solitaire necklace. It looked impressive. She thanked him profusely and began to open the next box. Seated on a velvet pad were a pair of diamond stud earrings. The set looked very expensive. Aastha said they were simply gorgeous and praiseworthy, but that she could not accept them. Balbir quipped in jest,
“This jewelry is not prettier than the person who’s going to wear it. Please accept this as a token of my admiration for you. It will make me happy.”
Aastha demurred, but then I chimed in and said,
“Aastha, take it. Judging Balbir, you are going to get many more in the future. He is giving it with love. Respect that.”
Aastha said nothing, but went over to Balbir, gave him the necklace, knelt parallel to him, facing away, she moved her hair in the back to one side for him to place the jewelry on her neck. When Balbir was done, Aastha went to the bathroom and put on the studs and then came out wowing them. She thanked Balbir profusely. Balbir then took out a Lego set of Marvel Spider Fighters and gave it to Imtiaz. Aastha asked her son to thank the uncle.
Bhoomi came out of the kitchen and I introduced Chitra to Balbir. After a little chit chat, Bhoomi excused herself and went back into the kitchen. I too, after spending some time talking to Balbir, made my way into the kitchen. The kids had gone upstairs to play. Left in the family room were Aastha and Balbir. Balbir broke the silence.
“Your choice of clothing is excellent. It’s very becoming you.”
“The choice is Bhoomi didi’s, elder sister. She bought it for me.” Playing with the diamond necklace, she praised its unique setting. She absolutely loved the design
These moments seemed precious on both sides. Balbir could not help keeping his eyes on her. He was transfixed, in a trance. She too was connecting in a big way. Now, looking at him more closely, she found him to be very handsome.
“How long have you lived in New York?” asked Aastha “Where did you do your studies?”
“I came to New York three years ago when I got the job at NYU. Prior to that, I lived in London, finishing my Ph.D. from the London School of Economics.”
“That is very impressive. Did you have to study extra hard?”
“Studying was the easy part. Writing the dissertation or thesis was tricky. The challenge was to come up with an original postulation.”
“You are so intelligent. What is postulation?”
“Postulation means a theory or a hypothesis.”
One could tell that the two were enjoying each other’s company. Aastha had a cry that was screaming to be heard. The events which led to the divorce with Iqbal were a severe jolt. She needed a shoulder to lean on and Balbir’s seemed to be plenty strong and wide. Balbir, on the other hand, found Aastha very desirable. Now the couple was in a groove and talking animatedly. Many topics were covered.
“Aastha, do you have an interest in English Literature,” asked Balbir
“Yes, but how did you know.”
“Your leaker friend told me.”
“You mean Daksh.”
“The very same. While you were going to an English convent, I was studying at a Hindi medium school. But my dad was a Professor of Physics, he was very into all kinds of reading, including English prose. I learned from him and I am partial to French writers, Hugo and Dumas.”
“That’s good. We have one more thing in common.”
“What is the other one.”
“Spending time with each other.”
They seemed like two lovers.
After giving the couple a decent amount of time, I decided to come back to the family room. I asked,
“Are you two getting to know each other? Balbir. what are you teaching at NYU? I overheard you say that you got your Ph.D. from the London School of Economics.”
“Yes, I am a London School of Economics alum and I teach macroeconomics and operations research at NYU.”
“Great credentials,” I praised him and said, “Your alma mater is a revered institution. I had a classmate from your school when I was studying for my MBA at Columbia University. He was quite a chap, His name was Kartar Singh and he was a Sikh.
“I, too, am a Sikh, a Mona Sardar,” a Sikh without a turban and long hair.
Bhoomi, in the meanwhile, had fed the kids who moved to the family room and were watching TV. She asked everyone to come to the dining table. She had gone all out to cook a lavish meal. All the culinary delights of a north Indian dinner. Her cooking prowess was on display as everybody was taking seconds. After dinner, the adults moved to the family room and the kids went up to sleep. Bhoomi had joined the group. She addressed Balbir
“May I call you Balbir Bhaiyya, elder brother?”
“Of course, and may I call you Bhoomi?”
“By, all means.”
“Bhoomi, you are so selfless and such a great cook. Aastha and I owe you a great debt of gratitude. That is if Aastha would let me speak for the both of us.”
Aastha spoke up, “certainly Balbir.”
Changing the subject Balbir said, “Bhoomi, your initiative is making our connection possible. I haven’t been as happy for a long time. Aastha is such a positive force in my life already.
Now addressing Aastha, Bhoomi said, “Aastha didi, how do you feel?
Aastha responded, “Bhoomi, life is a jigsaw puzzle. You never know how and when all the pieces will fit. It looks like our time has come.”
The night took a pleasant turn. The conversation circled around several topics, but the undercurrent was the overall bonding of two souls. They had hit it off and were ready for the next step. Balbir took the initiative and asked Bhoomi if he could take Aastha out for dinner next Saturday. Bhoomi tried to pull his leg in jest
“You can, but there will be a price.”
Balbir was feeling elated and said, “Bhoomi, name your price. I am willing to pay any amount.”
Bhoomi laid down her conditions, “Just remember what you are saying. You have to keep my Aastha didi happy for the rest of her life. Do you think you can do that?”
Balbir said promptly, “Without question. She is going to be the apple of my eye. I dote on her.”
At the stroke of midnight, the party ended. Aastha and Balbir had a dinner date for next Saturday.
The floor turned on its axis and through the transparent walls of the revolving restaurant, guests could get a panoramic view of Manhattan. The scene was a kaleidoscope of dazzling lights coming from the areas’ sky rise buildings, particularly Times Square. It was midtown’s grandeur. Aastha and Balbir glided to the music, in each other’s arms, to the View Restaurant’s orchestra, located on the covered terrace of The Marriott Marquis in Manhattan.
Balbir had asked the maître de to dim the lights above their table, so as to simulate a candlelight ambiance. Aastha was dressed in a navy blue silk sari with edged embroidery in silver thread. (See Exhibit on Aastha’s attire closet Sarees). She was wearing the diamond necklace and earrings he had given her. Her silver-grey blouse swelled with her ample breasts and became the target of Balbir’s sly roving eyes.
Aastha looked supremely seductive but his thoughts flashbacked to the episode in Lahore. Pakistan. Will the mantle of her love cover his Lahore bruise? He so desperately wanted to forget that episode. As he was trying to settle this issue, he realized that he was required to come back to earth. Sitting across was Aastha, an elixir that could change his life. She could take him in her fold and protect him from unwanted encroachments.
All this happened in a flash and soon he was looking into Aastha’s sparkling eyes. There were two things that he found supremely intoxicating about a woman, sparkling eyes and the softness and roundness of exposed shoulders.
“Aastha, you have the most sparkling eyes I have ever seen.” Balbir praised her, “ I can keep looking into them through eternity.”
He took a breath and then said, “The second thing that excites me about a woman I can tell you when I see you in a sundress.”
“Thanks for the compliment. But what will you judge when I wear a sundress?”
“You will have to be patient. I will tell you in due course when the event
happens, so you better hurry up.”
The proximity of the dance and the touching of her bare midriff should have excited his libido. But, a strange phenomenon was happening. He felt tranquil with a cooling sensation. As if the relationship was more than a fling. Perhaps it had moorings of permanency. He rejoiced with these thoughts. He knew that at appropriate times, raunchiness would descend. Aastha was, for the lack of a better word, tempting. He would enjoy making love to her.
The following days were a whirlwind tour studded with passionate moments. They began to gel and a good amount of physicality emerged. There was the first kiss which happened on a horse and carriage ride in Central Park. Balbir had called up the reservation desk and booked a prearranged carriage. It was going to cost him $50 for an hour and flowers and chocolates were an extra $10. He went for the whole package.
On a Sunday they dropped off Imtiaz at Bhoomi’s place and then headed towards the park. After the ride, they would pick up Imtiaz and go for lunch. Aastha had made a feeble attempt to include Imtiaz in the ride, but Balbir was hesitant. So, just the two of them went. Upon arrival, they parked the car in the garage reserved for riders. It was adjacent to the point where the ride began. Lined up along Central Park South, between fifth and sixth avenues, were handsome horses and their carriages. The captain led them to one. Awaiting Aastha were her roses and chocolate. She was delighted, hugged Balbir and rewarded him with a passionate kiss. This signaled that more intimacy would happen for the couple in the future. For today, her lips were his nectar, which he drank with every press of their lips.
Their romantic ride began. The horses trotted and took them to Central Park’s most popular attractions, the Wollman Rink, the Pond, the Central Park Zoo, Sheep Meadow and the Dakota, home of the former Beatle John Lennon. Resting her head lovingly on Balbir’s shoulder, she made clear that her submission was total, that she really trusted this man and was eager to love him. It was an act of submission. She navigated a major part of this one hour journey resting on his shoulder and holding hands. She decided that she would do this, not just for this journey but through the entire journey of their life. She found no fault in Balbir,
Finally, the day came when Aastha invited Balbir to her apartment for dinner. It was the Sunday after the Central Park ride. She felt on top of the world and had an exhaustive South Indian menu for Balbir. She wanted to do something special, hence, the rollout of Rava Masala Dosa, Dal Vada, and Idli -Sambhar generally dishes not offered by North Indian hostesses. She had taken the day off from work. Bringing her boombox into the kitchen, she inserted a cassette of Lata Mangeshkar and with this background music, began to cook
Description of South Indian dishes
-Dosa-type of pancake made from a fermented batter. A crepe-like consistency.
-Rava Idli-steamed cake of rice
-Dal Vada-deep fried patties usually made of lentils
-Sambhar-lentil based vegetable chowder
-Rasam-soup prepared with tamarind or tomato juice with added spices and groundnuts and served chilled. It is laborious to make, taking twenty-four hours.
-Payasam-dessert consisting of rice/vermicelli boiled in milk/coconut milk flavored with cardamom containing groundnuts.
She served these dishes in courses spaced over the entire evening. Beginning with Rasam followed with the other two South Indian appetizers, Rava Idli and Dal Vada to be dipped in Sambhar; and Samosas which she bought from Bombay Foods & Spices. For the entree, was Dosa, which she served teeming hot, fresh from the griddle. For this dish, she had two kinds of Chutneys; coconut and tamarind. For dessert, she served the favorite of South Indian offerings, Payasam. This she served in the latter part of the evening.
When Balbir rang her doorbell, her heart was aflutter. She was going to meet him in a confined space, all alone for the first time. She did not know what was going to happen that night.
So, with trepidation and excitement, she opened the door. The decorative kurta/pajama suit (See Aastha's attire closet-Anarkali Suits) on Balbir looked regal. She herself had chosen a cream-colored cotton sari with a broad border in red and gold (See Aastha’s attire closet-saris).
Balbir had a bouquet of tiger lilies and red roses in a glass vase, a tasteful selection. He came in and gave the vase to Aastha who deposited the flowers in the center of the coffee table. He then turned and gave Aastha a gentle embrace. Aastha enjoyed this beginning. Balbir said hi to Imtiaz, standing behind his mother. It was a rather small one-bedroom apartment in which there was a dining table, a sofa, a sofa chair, a coffee table, and two steel folding chairs. All of this was in one room. She had a dining cum family room. Balbir sat down on the sofa and Aastha on the chair. Aastha began the conversation,
“Balbir, thank you for the ride at Central Park. It will be a memorable memory for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. You are so caring.”
“Anything for you, my love. You are so special.”
“You make me special because you yourself are very special.”
After some small conversation, Aastha said she had to attend to the kitchen. She could put on some music and asked if Balbir would prefer the sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar or the Santoor, musical instrument, exponent Shiv Kumar Sharma. Balbir had heard of Shiv Kumar Sharma, but never listened to any of his music. So, he opted for the latter. Aastha slid the right cassette in the player and asked Imtiaz to show uncle some of the essays he had gotten an A on in school. Having set the mood, she stepped into the kitchen. In a few minutes, she brought out the chilled Rasam in a stainless-steel glass. She gave one to each and took one for herself and sat down on the chair. Balbir looked at some of the work Imtiaz did and since it was stellar he praised the child. After some more chitchat she stepped back into the kitchen, leaving Imtiaz with Balbir.
She brought out in a stainless-steel thali, a plate, some appetizers, Idli and Dal Vada with Sambhar in a small stainless-steel cup. She asked the two to come to the dining table and that is where she set the thalis. She asked them to begin eating. She went back to the kitchen to make some hot Rava Dosas on the griddle. Finally, when she had served the two, and once they had settled back on the sofa, she brought out a thali for herself and sat down on the sofa chair. Imtiaz wanted to watch TV, so she turned off the music and sat next to Balbir on the sofa. Balbir praised her cooking all along and his reward to Aastha was a gentle kiss to her brow.
There is something about a cotton sari. It’s crisp, fresh and very enticing. Imtiaz had gone to bed and the two were left in the family room. Balbir talked about his days in London and she, of Bhopal, where she spent the majority of her young life, Both were hankering for love. He sat holding her hands but did not want to make a move. His senior friends at the University taught him that the girl gives her signal in some token way and then he was to take over. Aastha finally made her move. She leaned over and planted a kiss on his cheeks. This was the clue he expected. He turned to face her, kissed her on the lips and at the same time smoothly caressed the contours of her breasts over the cotton blouse and eventually without the blouse. That night, they made love for the first time on the sofa.
After the lovemaking, they sat at the dinner table. Aastha served Payasam, the desert and then coffee. There was a sense of victory, an ebullience, spirits floating on air. They stayed together for a considerable length of time, not willing to give up that day. Balbir informed her about Hindi movies on Sunday at Teacher’s College Auditorium of Columbia University on W119th Street. Next week’s movie was Dostana starring Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha, and Zeenat Aman. It was the story of two friends falling in love with the same girl. They decided to go.
The next Sunday her beau was standing dressed in a Ralph Lauren maroon polo and khaki Dockers. He carried his attire, on a six-foot frame, quite well. Unlike other days, she was dressed in a yellow/pumpkin Anarkali suit (See attached Aastha’s attire closet-Anarkali suit). She had bought an uplifting bra and was looking enticing. Balbir parked the car on the street and they walked into the auditorium. Balbir knew the owner, Mr. Vyas who lived in a penthouse on Madison Avenue. Apparently, the movie business was lucrative enough for him to afford such a swanky pad. Once again, she wanted Imtiaz to join them, but he did not. Aastha was a little hurt but did not press the issue. The twosome went and afterward, they dined at a Mexican restaurant. By the time Aastha reached home, it was midnight. The babysitter told her that Imtiaz missed her. He kept on asking for his mom.
The two had transitioned from friends to lovers. However, Balbir’s relationship with Imtiaz was a big question mark. Balbir was cordial but showed no emotion, no special bonding. He never embraced Imtiaz or showed any warmth towards him. Imtiaz still went to a mosque once a month with Daksh’s friend from work. Balbir had not even asked her about the mystery of the Muslim name for Imtiaz. She felt guilty about the movie night and subsequent dinner. Mulling over these troubling thoughts, she faced Balbir at The View where the lights were dimmed at their table.
“Aastha, I have to ask you something, but I am nervous,” Balbir said in a quivering voice.
“Don’t be. I am all ears. What do you have to say?”
Balbir ventured a suggestion, ”Let’s order some wine. Maybe, that will give me some courage.”
Aastha was intrigued but followed along. He ordered a fancy expensive champagne Piper Heidsieck Brut, a vintage Rare from France. They continued their conversation for a few minutes, kept sipping champagne, and then, Bulbar pulled out something from his coat pocket. It looked like a jewelry box. He opened the box and Aastha was gazing at a beautiful, humongous diamond ring. He held her hand and said,
“Nothing will give me more pleasure than having you for my wife.”
With that, he came down on her side of the booth and knelt in front of her and said,
“Aastha, will you marry me?
Blood rushed to Aastha’s head and there was a sudden surge of happy incredulity. She could barely cut muster but said in a weak voice,
“My love, you know I will, any day of the week.” She was overwhelmed.
Balbir got up and sat on her side of the booth, alongside her. He then gently picked up her hand and pushed the ring firmly on her finger. He gathered Aastha in a close embrace and said,
“Darling you have dressed so appropriately. This plum sari (See Aastha's attire closet-Sarees) is most becoming of all that you have worn in front of me. Let this be the color of our love.
With that, he gave her a big squeeze, as she melted in his arms.
Again, they were sitting across each other on their respective sides. Aastha was finding Balbir’s attitude towards Imtiaz questionable. This had been on her mind today. She asked Balbir about Imtiaz.
“What will you do about Imtiaz? Will you adopt him?”
“Aastha I have been thinking about that. Why does he have a Muslim name?”
“ Because his dad is Iqbal Quereshi. He is a Muslim and he named Imtiaz. In fact, he used to take Imtiaz to the mosque regularly. I used to take him to the temple. Iqbal accompanied us to the temple, while I did not go to the mosque.”
“Aastha, this will be a problem. I have looked into boarding schools and there are some very good ones in Manhattan. We can send him there and he can continue his education. We will visit him regularly.”
It was like a lightning bolt. Aastha did not expect this. At worst, she thought that she would have to drop her desire to take him to a mosque regularly. Maybe, when Balbir adopted Imtiaz, they could get a Hindu name for him. She never thought of this option. There was a deathly silence as both sides seemed to be facing alternatives that they could not follow. That evening turned into a bittersweet one. A rock on her finger and a rock on her heart. Her elation turned sour and the night became a disaster. They went through the motions of eating and turned in at an early hour.
Balbir tried to call her a couple of times but she did not pick up the phone. Balbir stopped calling. When other Hindu boys were attracted to her, she did not encourage them since they did not warm up to Imtiaz. She did not expect this reaction from Balbir. She was in a quandary. What should she do next, if anything? Balbir was fighting his own demons. The incident at Lahore was looming large. Somehow, both did not feel like approaching me or Bhoomi. Many days passed since we had talked or seen the two. Bhoomi called Aastha, but she did not pick up the phone. One Saturday morning, we decided to make a visit to her place. She opened the door and was surprised to see us. Bhoomi had picked up some sweets and some Indian books for Imtiaz. She handed those to Aastha and soon we were sitting on the sofa. Bhoomi addressed her,
“Aastha how come you are not picking up your phone. We tried calling Balbir but he said that we should talk to you. What is happening between the two of you?”
At first, Aastha demurred, but then told us the whole story. She also added that there could be no relationship without Imtiaz and that, his welfare was paramount. I was a little surprised, as I did not expect Balbir to be so narrowminded. But some part of me understood. Men can often be very parochial. I promised that I would talk to Balbir over lunch at Bombay Palace.
I called up Balbir, but when he found out what I was going to meet him about, he was not willing to meet. Bhoomi and I felt at an impasse. We had to devise some other method. Time kept moving and soon it was three months after the engagement. We talked about the situation with each other and came up with this solution. The three of us, Bhoomi, Chitra and me, agreed that we would adopt Imtiaz, keep his name intact, and he could keep on going to the mosque with my friend. We would also celebrate Muslim festivals with my friend. We would do this so that Balbir and Aastha could give life to their love. We thought that this was a win-win situation for everyone. Imtiaz in our home would be another ray of light. He would be another whom, like Chitra, we could shower our love.
Having agreed, we stomped into Aastha's house a second time. This time we could both see how miserable they were. Aastha was genuinely missing Balbir and Imtiaz was having guilt feelings being the cause of this breakup. I approached the subject
“Aastha, I have a solution to your problem.”
I then told her about our decision. At first, she was taken aback and said that she could not part with her son, nor could she encumber us with Imtiaz for a lifetime. After the first shock, we told her that Imtiaz’s presence in our household would be our gain and that Chitra would get a good brother. She said she needed time to think it over. I decided to run this by Balbir also. This time I stormed his office at NYU. Pretty soon, we were sitting at a bistro in Greenwich Village. I could tell he was missing Aastha and that he really loved her. He spoke about her in endearing terms, with a sense of loss. Life was barren without her. I then asked him, if such was the case, couldn’t he make an exception to whatever was holding him back. I suggested that his stance may be stemming from life experiences as a child. Maybe his dad was a very staunch Hindu, and he might even be a member of RSS, the militant wing of the Hindu political party, Jan Sangh. I saw that he didn’t want to go there and that he couldn’t tell me the reason for his behavior. To my suggestion, he also was hesitant, like Aastha. He didn’t feel that he was doing the right thing by making Imtiaz an issue. Upon being asked for the reason, he would not give any. He said he would think it over.
Things were at a standstill until one day I got a surprise call from Imtiaz. He said he wanted to meet me. If I could come during a weekday, when his mom was not there, he had something to give me. We agreed on a time and a day, and on that day, we were sitting across each other at the dining table. Imtiaz gave me a letter, which was folded in threes. He asked me to open the letter. Here are the contents.
Dear Balbir Uncle:
I know I am the cause of the rift between you and mom. Young as I am, I have seen the love between you two, how you look at her, how you open the door of the car to let her in, how you show tenderness even in small things. She reciprocates all those feelings. Uncle. You two are meant for each other. You should be together.
I have had the good luck or maybe bad luck to be exposed to both religions, Hindu and Muslim. I find similar teachings in both. In a nutshell, in their core, they teach the same things. I found this in a book at the school library,
"They both aim at leading people to prosperity. They teach rightful beliefs, praiseworthy ethics, and decent deeds, all of which are the pillars of the prosperity of man and human society"
I am willing to go to a boarding school and adopt a Hindu name. After all, my mom is a Hindu. Just take care of my mom. She has seen horrors and much sadness. Once I am out, please give her all the happiness she deserves. Treat her like a princess because, in reality, she is one. Only I know the difficulties she has faced in life. It’s time you restore her sanity and bring her happiness.
I can tell you without hesitation that since you two have broken up, she is not the mom I had. I have caught her sobbing on many occasions. She is too proud to reach out to you, to say that she needs you. Balbir Uncle, please take care of my mother. I beg of you. I am willing to stay at the boarding school forever
I hope you will not disappoint me. There is only one Aastha and she needs you badly
With much love,
I was dumbfounded, such a sacrifice, such love for his mother, from a child who was only ten years old. I pulled Imtiaz towards me and held him firmly. He broke down and started to cry. In that instant, I knew that I would never send him to a boarding school. He would stay with us. Imtiaz had kept the letter in an envelope. I took the letter and mailed it to Balbir. I was waiting for his call, but none came.
It must have been about a week when Aastha got a call from Balbir around eight PM. He seemed distraught. He asked if she could come to his place right away by cab. Aastha didn’t ask any questions. She told Imtiaz to keep the doors locked and watch TV till the time she returned. Balbir buzzed her in. When she entered the apartment, she was shocked to see Balbir is a state of stupor. He was drinking liquor, had an unsteady gait and bloodshot eyes. He asked if Aastha could hold him.
Aastha held his hand and led him to the sofa. They both sat down and then Aastha pulled him down so that he was lying on her lap. She gently stroked his hair and asked him as to what was troubling him. When he did not reply, she bent down and kissed his forehead and, at the same time stroked his hair and said soothing words. After several minutes, Balbir fell asleep. Aastha was so overwhelmed, that she was weeping and cupping his face with both of her hands. She stayed absolutely still like a statue least she woke up Balbir. It was about three hours when Balbir showed signs of waking up. He was rolling his eyes and showed signs of tension with his facial expressions. Aastha addressed him,
Balbir, my love, what is the matter?”
“Aastha, make these images go away. I can’t stand them.”
“What kind of images?” she asked
“These Muslims who are coming after me with scythes. Some have burning logs. They want to kill or burn me. What can I do? How can I get rid of these images which have increased since the time we broke up. It’s as if they are punishing me for what I am doing to Imtiaz.”
This was a new facet of his life she was just learning about. When he said that such incidents have increased, it must mean he has had them for quite a while. This was obviously tied to some incidents in his life. She decided to find out.
“I know you lived in Pakistan. Did something happen there?
Balbir had an ashen face and seemed like he was trying to say something but could not. Aastha tried to coax him again.
“My love, you know I love you. You are safe in telling me whatever is troubling you.
It seemed that her line of questioning registered. Balbir began the conversation,
“It happened in Lahore.”
“I had figured that that is where it happened?”
“There were riots. Muslims were killing Hindus. We were told by a Muslim friend that a mob would be coming to our house very soon. He had heard this at the Chowk, marketplace They wanted to punish the family of my father, who was a liberal professor at the University, but now dead. There were just me, my mom and my eight-year-old younger brother. Sure enough, they came, with scythes and burning logs.
He stopped at this point, laboring to tell what happened next. Aastha could tell that something dreadful had happened. She tried to dispel his hesitancy.
“Balbir, you can tell me. You have come so far; don’t retreat.”
“I failed my family.”
“There was a neighbor’s Jeep. All three of us were going to escape in it. I was getting a headstart by jumping on to the jeep and was yelling at mom and Dilawar to run faster and come to the jeep.”
At this point, Balbir took another break. Aastha felt she needed to give him time so that he could fully unravel. She kept saying that she loved him and would help him in making peace with these nightmares.
After a few minutes, he narrated the climax
“Mom was trying to run as fast as she could. Dilawar was staying with her, as I should have. Aastha, I failed my family. The angry mob was there in minutes.”
After that Balbir took another long break and finally explained what had happened that night.
“They burnt my mother and brother alive right in front of my eyes. I cannot blame Kartar, the driver of the Jeep, for driving the Jeep away. If we waited, we would have lost our lives also. The open Jeep was pulling away and I was perched on its flatbed watching mom and Dilawar burning. It was a sickening sight. Since then, I have been having these nightmares. They will just not go away.”
Now that he had divulged all, Aastha understood his hatred towards Muslims. But today, she had to attend to Balbir who was sweating profusely. He was drenched. She asked him to get up and go take a shower. She pulled out a clean Kurta pajama, night suit, and made a fresh pot of coffee. She then called Imtiaz and told him to go to bed as she would spend the night with uncle Balbir.
That night was a night of reconciliation. Two souls, whose life story was incomplete by themselves was now powerfully aligned on their onwards journey through life. Balbir knew that while the loss of mom and Dilawar could not be compensated, the arrival of Imtiaz was some compensation. He could shed his mantle of hatred towards Muslims by acknowledging a half Muslim son in his household. It truly was a cathartic moment and the dawn of a new beginning, one shorn of pettiness and, embracing the good in all of us. Balbir spent the night in Aastha’s arms. He slept soundly and she kept a motionless vigil all night long lest Balbir woke up with her movement.
The days following this were therapeutic for Balbir. By recounting to Aastha he had begun his path to healing. However, the wound was so deep that it required more effort. Aastha and Balbir sat in front of Bhoomi and me, going over the events of Lahore. Aastha let Balbir do the talking, though she cut in quite often.
“Daksh and Bhoomi, there was a very traumatic incident in my life when we lived in Lahore. We had been living there since Partition (when India and Pakistan became separate countries). There was harmony between Muslims and Hindus. My Dad was a Professor of Physics at the University. We had Muslim neighbors and friends. After Dad’s passing away, we still were living in relative safety.”
“Well, that seems like it was not a bad situation,” I said
“Things flared up one year due to a Muslim girl marrying a Hindu boy. This is what started the unrest. There were riots and the Muslims took to arms. That’s when this ghastly event happened.”
At this stage, Balbir could not describe the event. So Aastha took over and related the burning of Balbir’s Ma and younger brother. She saw Balbir wince, but Aastha felt that dwelling over the incident would help Balbir face his trauma and that talking in the open would make it easier and not as painful. Balbir took center stage at this point,
“Since that time, I have been getting flashbacks of that day and I get nightmares. Their repetitiveness depends on situations. When I am with Aastha, I am in control. I can handle them.” He further added, “When I am having a nightmare, I wake up and do other things, like read a magazine, watch TV or think about Aastha, and usually the latter. Also, since I have known Aastha, the frequency of nightmares has reduced.”
All of this time we were giving him support by using words of encouragement. Bhoomi said,
“Balbir, that was many years ago. Today you have Aastha by your side. She will help you heal. Just do enjoyable things with her. Sleep in her arms at night. That will help you, don’t you think?”
“It certainly will. I am so lucky to have found her.”
Then what he did was unexpected. He went over to the coffee table where Imtiaz and Chitra were playing a game. He knelt before Imtiaz and cupped his face with both hands and said,
“Son, you will not know this as I have not talked to anyone about what happened when I got your letter. I am not ashamed to tell you that I cried when I first got it. I could see the immense love you have for your mother and even for me. She is not just a princess, as you call her in your letter, but the crown jewel of my life, and you are not far behind.”
Balbir then embraced Imtiaz and hugged him. He said,
“Your letter opened my eyes. A child who can sacrifice his whole being, has to be good, no matter if he is a Hindu or Muslim or a half Hindu/Half Muslim. You are Aastha’s child. Since she is so dear to me, then you are equally dear.” He pulled Imtiaz closer and said,
“Will you be my son? Will you call me Dad?”
By now, all three of us, Aastha, Bhoomi and I, were gathered around the coffee table. Imtiaz lunged forward and embraced Balbir and in a very firm voice said, “Yes, Dad.”
I took advantage of the situation. I nudged Aastha to embrace Balbir, who already had Imtiaz in his arms. The threesome looked like a family.
It was several days after Balbir’s meltdown. The party was at Aastha’s place. Packed in that small apartment were Balbir, Bhoomi, Chitra and I, as well as Aastha and Imtiaz. Additionally, there was a Hindu priest who was performing a havan, religious ceremony. Aastha was dressed in a simple white cotton sari with a black and gray border. Imtiaz was wearing a decorative off-white kurta pajama (See attached Aastha’s attire closet-Anarkali suits) and was sitting next to his dad, Balbir. The entire center of the room was cleared, and there were two medium-size dhurries, cotton carpets. It was ground seating and the priest had his portable “havan", an urn in which rituals are done, in the center of the room.
The priest performed the rituals and read the Vedic hymns. The principals for whom the puja, prayer, was held were Balbir, Aastha, and Imtiaz. It took about an hour and the place was blessed adequately, as were the principals. After the puja, the priest left, and another ritual took place. I was asked by Aastha to sit on the principal’s spot. She went to the kitchen and came out with puja thali, prayer plate, and sat in front of me. The others, as well as I, in the room, we're wondering what was happening. I then glimpsed a rakhi, holy decorative band made of cotton which sisters tie on their brother’s wrist, sitting on the plate. Aastha rotated the thali in front of me and then did tika, anointing, on my brow, sprinkled rice and then asked me to present my right arm. By now all in the room knew what was happening. People cheered as Aastha tied on me a rakhi, a simple innocuous thread but with a powerful message. It was an awesome moment; I was truly touched. My no-name relative took the mantle of a loving sister. She was no more just my no-name relative, but Aastha, my sister. I pulled out my wallet and gave her all the money in it.
A new chapter had begun in the lives of Aastha and Balbir. It was the commencement of a poem whose stanzas were written lovingly by the two. He placed her on a pedestal sky high, and for her, he was her romantic hero and crown prince all rolled in one. Included was little Imtiaz who was going to go to a concert at Radio City Music Hall with his dad. On Imtiaz’s
request, Chitra was included. Balbir was to raise this child with half Muslim values and religion proving that he was a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation.