Shahnaz came home from the office one evening to find a guest. It was Sikander’s mother. Shahnaz had met her at the office once when she had come to get some bank related work done. Sikander had introduced her to his mother then.
She freshened up quickly and came out to the lounge. Their guest was getting up to leave. Before she could get a chance to crossexamine her mother as to the purpose of the visit, Mahjabeen had breezed out of the apartment. It was a neignour’s son’s wedding, and the women of Mall Court were all caught up in the communal festivity and frenzy of preparation.
The next evening, mother and daughter sat down for tea as usual. Shahnaz took a sip of the hot, spirit-fortifying brew as she eyed the plate of samosas. Today her mother had made her favourite, delicate little beef samosas and it was difficult to not reach out and pop one into her mouth. But she’d been good; very good. She had not touched a samosa or a pakora* for the last two months even though the former, in its various delicious avatars, lay temptingly before her at every tea time. Shahnaz sighed and focused for a while on the new hollow concavneess of her belly. She smiled and looked at her mother. Mahjabeen was lost in thought.
“Aday, walay?”(1), she asked her mother.
“Shah sb de”(2), her mother responded simply.
The head of their committee and their communal lives had proposed for her daughter. Shahnaz blinked, taking in this bizarre information. And then she laughed; uproariously, until the tears streamed down her face.
“Lewanay de buda”(3), she finally said to her mother.
Still wiping away the tears of laughter, she asked her mother about the guest from last night. As it turned out, Sikander’s mother had gone to university with Mahjabeen in Islamabad. When they had moved to Karachi about a year ago, the two women had reconnected. They had both recently realized that their children worked in the same bank and at the same branch. And so she had come over with a profound request in mind: to enlist Mahajbeen’s daughter’s help in finding out about Annie; a colleague at the bank and Sikander’s love interest.
Shahnaz confused and dazed, looked at her mother. The bubbles of her recent rollicking laughter were still floating around in her belly. What was her mother saying! She was saying other things, about Sikander’s marriage. To Annie. About timelines; wedding cards. She suddenly felt like the breath had been knocked out of her. Disconnected phrases pinged on Shahnaz’s brain as she felt around for some semblance of order, of sense. A cacophony that had started in her head came crashing down into her ears and then grabbed at her throat. She looked at her mother unhearing, unblinking.
“Shahnaz, bachay* …?” she saw her mother mouth the words, but she still only heard the roar of a tumultuous ocean in her ears. Even as she let the tsunami of her broken, flooded heart carry her away inside, she remained silent, tomblike on the outside. She sat there quietly for a long time.
Mahjabeen was agitated and then thoughtful. She had balked at the quiet confidence with which Shah sb had presented the proposal. It had not been too many years ago that he had made a similar offer to Mahjabeen for herself. She had immediately and resoundingly rejected the notion of remarrying. Shah Manzoor had never brought it up again, until now, extending the offer a generation down the line. He was 50, Shahnaz was 23. Mahjabeen did not outright refuse the proposal and from that absence of a rejection, there bloomed hope like a wild flower in Shah Manzoor’s besotted heart.
Over the next month, Mahjabeen’s domestic burdens were eased in big and small ways as Shah Manzoor bestowed his largesse on her household. His driver made the arduous trips to the bank for her to pay her utility bills, took her appliances for repair, took her linen to the dhobi*, brought it back and deposited hefty bags of fruit at her doorstep, compliments of his employer. Mahjabeen who had always been reliant on taxis and rickshaws, was suddenly elevated in great part beyond these mass market modes of transport for the general mobility and flow of her life. These subtle and overt facilitations slowly picked their way through the reticent iciness of Mahjabeen’s heart where her daughter was resident. And so, the proposed union that had seemed ridiculous a month ago, began to appear less bizarre while also holding the conventional glimmer of longevity and ease. A large part of that aura of acceptance was lent to it by Shahnaz herself: Two days after the discussion between mother and daughter, Shahnaz had informed her mother that she would marry Shah sb. Mahjabeen had told her to think about it, that the world was her oyster. Her daughter had looked at her as if she’d just swallowed that oyster whole; her entire world lying vanquished and decomposing inside her.
Preparations for a winter wedding began at TP-2. Mahjabeen had informed her brothers of the union; they were completely supportive. They had always been somewhat offended and on edge after their sister moved to Karachi. Grounding, entrenching milestones like respectable marriages meant less for them to worry about in terms of unexpected calamities defiling their family name and also the ever present possibility of having to extend themselves financially. It didn’t matter that they had had nothing to do with their sister for the first ten years of her moving to Karachi, and when they did reconnect it was as unemotional as it was practical: After the initial pleasantries were out of the way they wondered if a distant cousin visiting the city by the sea for the first time could stay with Mahjabeen for a few days. Of course she could; the hospitality had been extended graciously and generously.
Mahjabeen had kept in touch with her older brother after that, more out of an innate compulsion to feel like she still belonged to a larger family of siblings, cousins aunts and uncles rather than any sentimental bond; if ever there had been one, the sibling tug of affection had long since relaxed its pull. Now when Karim lala* heard the news of his niece’s impending nuptials he was genuinely happy. He had never met Shah Manzoor but had heard of him from his sister off and on, always at the influential front and centre of life at Mall Court. The man’s age was irrelevant; he would make a good husband for his niece. He had informed Mahjabeen that he and his family would attend the wedding in December.
Shahnaz gave up her evening walks, devoting herself entirely to assembling her trousseau and to baking. She baked every weekend, ferociously, constantly, going through her recipe book twice over. Everyone bought her delectable desserts. Shah sb made fliers for this home economics enterprise of his fiancé : “Shah’s Bakes” they proclaimed in big green letters (‘Shah’ after all was the first part of Shahnaz’s name too he had said to Mahjabeen). He even had their newspaper delivery man pass them around in the city. At some point over the next month or so he suggested to Shahnaz that she give up her bank job and focus on her baking business. And with time, a burgeoning family he thought. Shah Manzoor devoutly believed in the divine strength of numbers; theirs would be a vast, happy family.
Shahnaz gave in her one month notice and continued to bake up a storm that in its growing undualtions found its way further and further outside Mall court. Shah sb had got a rickshaw to do deliveries for those who could not themselves pick up the delicacies prepared by the talent-abundant hands of his wife; the soon-to-be prefix was just a formality now.
Soon, the nippy winds of early December began to blow across the city making its denizens don sweaters, jackets and even woollen caps in its 20 degree coolness. Shahnaz had steadily put back on the seven kgs she had lost. She didn’t need the scale that was lying in a forgotten corner of her bathroom to confirm that fact; she could feel it in the satiated plumpness of her belly and the chafing of her upper arms against her body.
It was one week before the wedding. Shahnaz and Mahjabeen were having their evening tea. Tea time with her mother had now become Shannaz’s single anchor of reminiscence, a vestige of a warm, safe past that she had let go; buried in the space of her liver, allowing only the pleasure of this little evening repast with her mother to gently flow towards her heart, to remind her just a little bit of her old self. She was quick to banish any vulnerability that threatened to overtake her during this dusk time mother-daughter companionship. She had already in her mind, put her frivolous, childish past forever behind her.
Shahnaz looked at her mother who was gazing at her daughter, as she did nowadays, for signs of capitulation, of rethinking her decision. Shahnaz smiled reassuringly at Mahjabeen even as she felt something wrench in her belly. She willed herself to focus on her bubble of calm: having tea with her mother and samosas with her tea. Still smiling, she breathed in deeply and reached for her third samosa.
(1): “Mother, what is it?” in pushto
(2): “It is Shah sahib” in pushto
(3): “The old man is crazy” in pushto
* Pakora: fried fritters made of vegetables such as potatoes and onions, coated in seasoned gram flour batter and deep fried.
* Bachay: Child in urdu and pushto
* Dhobi: A washerman/ woman who washes clothes for a living in Urdu
* Lala: suffix used with a name to show respect for an older man/ brother.