ASYA FF: Preme Kahani Hai Mushkil

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Oct 22, 2015

Aaja Zari Wale Neele Aasman Ke Taley (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 37 times)

Chapter 120

 

It was Saturday teatime when Rashid and Siddiqui Saheb got Ayaan’s message and the attached photo of the sleeping pride among the many others of Zaid’s first visit to his dad’s office. 

“Kitni acchi tasveer hai! I’ll have it framed. In fact, we should have a family portrait done,” Rashid suggested. 

“Haan, bahut accha idea hai … aur mauka bhi,” Siddiqui agreed. “Even Zeenat and Anwar Saheb are here; it’ll be perfect.” 

They looked down again at the picture of Asad, Zoya and Zaid. It was such a charming sight—and such a powerful testament to mercy, love and just desserts. And already it was stirring other plans. 

“I’m going to have a ‘bring your child or grandchild to work day’ in my office too!” both grandfathers piped up at the same time. 

Then they argued about who would get to take Zaid first. 

Raziya shook her head in dismay at their bickering. She had liked all their other ideas. Except this one. “Khayali pulao bana na band kariye aap dono. First you’ll have to ask for Asad’s permission. I don’t know how he even allowed this to happen. He’s so hyper about germs.” 

But she was secretly pleased about Asad’s finickiness and crossed her fingers that he would say no. She wasn’t too thrilled with Zaid being out among so many people. What if he got sick? Caught a virus? Zoya’s enthusiasm had bulldozed over everyone’s fears but Raziya really wasn’t happy. 

“Bhabhi, some time or the other he has to go out, na,” Shireen had tried to pacifiy her. 

“But why invite trouble? Is it necessary to take him out in the middle of all these people? Someome might have a cold—then what? Bechara mera bachcha, nanhi si jaan!” 

She rattled off all possible medical ailments that people in Asad’s office might be suffering from—there was that multi drug-resistant TB thing going around. She had seen all about it on Aamir Khan’s show. Hepatitis, Dengue, AIDS, Swine Flu and god knows what other bugs floated in the air these days. 

She had frowned at Anwar and Siddiqui Saheb as they dismissed her worries.

“Sar pe chadha kar rakha hai Zoya ko!” Raziya had mumbled as she trotted off to the kitchen. 

She’d even rung up Dilshad to try to get her to put a stop to this nonsense. But apparently no one had the guts to stand up to Zoya’s giggly tyranny.

Then she’d plotted to protect Zaid in other ways. Of course he would go to Asad’s office armed with a dozen kala tikas behind his ear but she wanted something more concrete done. 

“Dilshad, put haldi in his ajwain water and make sure he drinks the whole thing.” She’d commanded in her sixth phone call that morning. “There’s no point in telling Zoya. She’ll only laugh at me.”

Dilshad laughed too. Raziya had been mounting this protect-Zaid-from-epidemics campaign for about a week now. Even taking Zaid to the dargah would make her huff in annoyance. 

Finally Raziya had called Asad to express her worries. Only he would be on her side and only he could tackle Zoya.

“Is anyone sick in your office?” She’d asked him and then interrogated him about a dozen other things. “What if people in their families are sick and they are carriers of a virus?” 

“Umm, Aunty I can’t control that.” 

“But you can control not taking your child to office,” she’d muttered. “But no, nobody listens to me. Everybody only listens to Zoya rani and her lunatic ideas!” 

Asad had prudently kept his mouth shut. 

When even he seemed unaffected, she became teary-eyed. She’d heard so many horror stories of babies getting sick. What if something happened to Zaid? 

“I understand your worries, Aunty,” Asad had tried to comfort her. “OK, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll have my office fumigated and bring in the best pest-control company.” 

“Haan, yeh theek hoga.” At least he was taking her seriously unlike the others. “But the chemicals they use won’t be safe for childre—” Fresh worries assaulted her. 

“Good point. I’ll make sure that we do it a week before and that they use the safest products.”

On D-Day she had called several times to find out how Zaid was doing and had only just calmed down. 

And now when she heard her husband’s and Rashid’s plans she felt the familiar panic return. Ya Allah! When would this craziness end? Why didn’t any of them understand the perils? Kisi ki nazar lag jayegi. 

“I told you this was a bad idea,” she texted Asad. “You’ve unleashed a monster. Now your Abbu and Siddiqui Saheb are lining up to parade Zaid in their offices. You must put a stop to this! Immediately!”

 

Later that night, back at home, Zoya saw Asad grinning as he checked his messages.

“What’s so funny?” 

“You’re in big trouble,” he’d replied. 

“Me? Why? What did I do?” 

“Aunty thinks you’ve let a genie out of the bottle. Now both my Abbu and yours want to take Zaid to their offices.” 

Zoya slapped her head. Oh Shi*t. Aunty would really go nuts this time. It was hard enough getting her to agree to Zaid visiting Asad’s office. She was sure that Aunty’d already complained about her at her Ammi’s gravesite. Her angry mumblings about spoiling grown kids and exposing babies to man-eating bugs would only get louder. Raziya was so upset about this that she hadn’t talked to Zoya for half a day.

Yikes, she had created a monster! 

And the only one who could save them from this monster was Zaid. He would have to spend all day at Chhoti Nani’s house now. And let’s hope his cuteness would surgically laser-beam all her anxieties away. But Zoya knew, Aunty would get her revenge on her for sure with the badaam and ghee maalish.

Yuck! 

Zoya looked down at her son who was romping on the bed with Dobby. 

“Zaid?” 

He looked up at her. These days he was trying to wiggle and roll back on to his stomach. Usually he ended up thumping his butt in frustration. She wagged her finger at him. 

“You better not sneeze, or sniffle, or cough, OK mister? Or dude, Chhoti Nani will beat up Ammi!” 

He clapped his hands. 

“Oh really?” Even her son was conspiring against her. 

And then he sneezed.

Oh no, Allah miyan, no, NO!

She was dead meat. 

May be it was just a false alarm. May be Dobby’s hair had tickled her son’s nostrils. Please, please Allah miyan! All hell would break lose and the army of grandparents would swoop down on her and peck her brains out. 

Zoya knelt by the bed and clasped her hands in prayer before her son. “Please baby, don’t you dare do this to me!” 

Zaid’s neck whipped back from another sneeze. Looks like the little mister had a cold.

“As-ad!”

“What?” He came running from the closet at the panic in her voice.

“We are so dead.”

 

Zoya was torn between delight and guilt. Knowing Asad and his track record of giving her the best surprises, she knew that her birthday celebration wasn’t going to be as mundane as he was trying to convince her to believe.

But what was he planning?

The suspense was killing her. Last year she hadn’t expected much because they were still being hunted by Tanveer, but he’d still outdone himself. 

Oh my god, he’d remembered her silly husband wishlist. 

"Main apki har wish poori karunga."

And he had. He’d knocked off number 1 and 3 her last birthday. The breakfast in bed had been soooo awesome! And the post-breakfast action wasn’t too shabby either.

Fine, it wasn’t the first time he’d done the breakfast thing, but it sure was a wonderful surprise. The first time he’d served her breakfast in bed was for one sehri at their first Eid together.

And because it was Jahanpanah we are talking about here, he’d been not just excellent at dishing out the food but also keeping the kitchen cleaner than she could have ever managed. It must have taken him some time to pull it off. She didn’t even know when he’d left bed to get all the prep work done. For sure, she’d married a magician!

And since then, it had become a kind of ritual between them. For the first sehri, he always got her breakfast in bed.

Ooh, good job, 16-year old Zoya for thinking up such super ideas! 

But then you grew up … and sometimes those ideas were used against you.

Thanks to Aapi’s intervention and trickery her husband did get her pizza in bed for these rituals now, but they were evil disguised pizzas: whole wheat, loaded with veggies, low-fat cheese, and wait for it, low salt.

Are you kidding me here?

No doubt they tasted great, but c’mon! She always had to doctor them with hot sauce and more cheese later, and bless his heart, Asad would let her get away with it. 

But what he’d done on her birthday night last year, had taken her breath away. It was cold out, winter was just around the bend and Jahanpanah being Jahanpanah had obviously taken the weather forecast and cloudy night sky conditions into account. If the skies had been clear, Asad told her later, he had plans for them to camp out all night. He had sleeping bags and everything ready. 

She didn’t know when he could have had the time to do it but when they turned the lights out that night their room glowed suddenly and Zoya had gasped in wonder looking up at the ceiling.

He’d come up behind her to hold and whisper in her ear, “so, did your husband take care of wish number 3?”

“Yes, he did, and how!” She’d spread her arms and twirled under the night sky painted by her husband just for her. And then she’d rushed into his arms and buried her face in his chest. 

“Zoya?” Asad worried that she was crying. And truth be told, she did feel a bit sniffly. 

“Are you OK?” 

“I’m better than OK. Because I’m the luckiest girl alive! Thank you for making me feel so special.” 

“Thank you for making my life special,” he’d breathed and then she did cry. Just a little bit. 

“No more tears,” Asad told her. “Come,” he held her hand to lead her to the bed, “lie down with me and we’ll trace them together.” 

And what do you know, he must have looked at astronomical images and charts to get the constellations precisely right! Just like her Jahanpanah to be so meticulous—down to the last detail. Her favorite, Orion’s belt was there, right over her head. Zoya had blown a kiss to her Ammi. And the big dipper and the little dipper mirrored each other on the opposite side with Polaris perfectly lined up between them. Aww.

Perfect. Just like her husband. 

“Asad, this is beautiful. How long did you take to do this?” 

“About 3 hours.” 

“But when did you do it?” 

“This morning when you went to the dargah and your Ammi’s side. I asked Ammi and Najma to delay you a bit.” 

Ah, that’s why Najma had insisted on a mani-pedi regimen with all stops pulled out. It was to give her Bhaijaan the time to set up for the surprise. “You are pure genius, you know that!” 

“I know,” he’d smirked. And when she’d opened her mouth to scold him for being so full of himself he’d shut it for her. And gone on to do things that had her biting off moans and screams … 

She was convinced that Zaid had been conceived that night, right under the stars that her super thoughtful Akdu had planted and plucked for her. 

 

In fact she’d gloated about it nine months later when Zaid was born—a day before his Abbu’s birthday. 

“Umm, Mr. Khan, I hope no one does the math, but looks like he was conceived on my birthday to be born a day before yours!” 

“He’s my son, Mrs. Khan. Is there any doubt that he wouldn’t do the most logical and mathematical thing possible under the circumstances?” 

Zoya had laughed even then. Nope. There was no doubt. No doubt at all. “You’re right. He’s chhotu Akdu after all!” 

“I told you not to call him Chhotu!” Asad rolled his eyes. “Ever.” 

“But he’s a mini-version of you!” 

“Even then.” 

“Baby Akdu?” 

“Hmm …” he’d growled softly, still dissatisfied and jealous: The name Akdu was just reserved for him. Besides, his son was way too cute to be Akdu.

 

She wandered into the backyard with the baby monitor in her hand. Zoya hugged herself at the memories of their birthdays, even more deeply knotted now thanks to Zaid Miyan.

Yes indeedy, Mr. Khan had made her last birthday very special—in more ways than one. And he’d kinda painted himself into a corner there—how would he ever be able to top that?

Exhilaration rippled through her. He would top it though, of that she was sure. 

But then the guilt angel jumped hard on her shoulder—with cleats. Zoya, how could you be so greedy and … and thoughtless? Asad is super busy these days! He leaves early, comes home late, how would he even have the time to plan something big? 

She shivered and sighed into the night. 

“Kya hua, mera cheetah?” Anwar came to sit by her side on the bench and cover her with a shawl. 

Zaid had been put to bed after bedtime stories from his mom and dad followed by a long FaceTime good night peppered with lots of kissiyaan to his Abbu.

“Missing Asad? Does he always come this late?”

“Yes, I am missing him. But no, he started coming late only since last month. They’ve taken on a new project and run into some issues that he doesn’t tell me about much.” 

“And your detective skills haven’t been able to root it out?” 

She smiled. “I’ve kinda been busy too. Jeeju.” Zoya slipped her arm through his. “I wish you’d stay longer.” 

“I would love it too. But kya karein, jana hai.” He had only stayed on to attend her birthday and would be leaving the day after. 

She hated these cycles of short visits and long absences. Each parting grew harder to bear. 

“But we’ll still see each other everyday—thank god for Facetime! Kitni kaam ki cheez hai, hai na? I don’t want to miss out on a minute of my little girl and Zaid growing up.”

“Jeeju!” 

“Aur nahin to kya! You’re still my little girl. So what if the braces have come off and you’re the mother of a little boy now. I just wish you hadn’t found your happiness so far away from home though.”

True dat. 

 

After Jeeju left, she thought again of Asad’s plans. Or at least the plans he was telling her about. He wanted to take her out for dinner. “Just us, I don’t feel like sharing you with anyone,” he’d said. 

Aw, now what girl wouldn’t melt after hearing that? 

She wondered, not for the first time, if her dream had anything to do with these plans. Come to think of it there were some awesome benefits to that ridiculous phone-nikaah dream she’d had a few weeks ago. Asad staked his bold claim on her more often these days. He would grab her up in his arms all of a sudden and just hold her to him. One night he’d growled and whispered, “I’ll tattoo my name on that body of yours … with my teeth,” and she’d just combusted, like, right there. Mmm mmm mm.

And he couldn’t resist calling her Mrs. Khan or Mrs. Asad Ahmed Khan every few hours these days. Even his pillow talk was peppered with more possessive words: biwi, begum, wife. So much so, that she was missing him calling her, “babe.” And if he had to get her to agree to anything these days, he’d always jerk his chin a millimeter and ask: “qubool hai?”

She loved it! 

Who knew even stupid dreams could have such super rewards!

“Are you trying to seduce my subconscious mind into never having such dreams again?”

“Hmmm, you’re on to my diabolical plans. Is it working?” 

“I don’t know. But can this daily drilling of nikaah vows really work?” 

“If that drilling doesn’t work I have other kinds of drilling tha—” 

“Asad! You’re so bad.” 

“You’ve made me this bad, Mrs. Khan. You’ve made my blood go mad. I’d chain you to me if I can help it and forbid you to answer any phone call unless it’s from me!”

She laughed. “Umm, Mr. Khan … you seem to have forgotten one important detail. In that dream, I was answering a call from you! And that’s when the ‘haan-haan’ disaster happened!” 

“So basically in your dream, it was still my fault that you got phone-married to someone else.” 

“Umm hmm.” 

“Brilliant,” he muttered. “I’m wrong even in her dreams. She messes up, and it’s somehow my fault.” 

“Asad!” She kissed his cheek. “No, remember we decided long ago that you’re my Mr. Right?” 

“Good. Remember that. And I want every inch of your body to remember it too. Every cell, every nook and cranny, crease and crevice of your sleeping and waking mind must remember: that I will stamp out any stray dream your mind dares to dream with my mark and stain on you.” 

Zoya’s breath caught and eyes misted. This was kinda the reaction she was hoping for when she’d first told him about that dream. But no, that night and the next day, Mr. Khan had been too busy laughing at her. Hmm, der aaye, duruust aaye, like Jeeju always said! 

Asad grabbed her chin to force her to look at him. “If I could I’d wipe out the word, ‘haan,’ from your mental databases I would. But then I wouldn’t be able to hear you say ‘haan’ to me, right?” 

“Haan,” she’d whispered. And added, “but if you want, I could just say qubool hai to you from now onwards!” 

“Good girl! See, it’s already working!” 

But when he’d bent his head to suck her nipple hard and walk his fingers between her legs to dip and stroke and swirl and strum, her grateful body … and blitzed-out mind had screamed “haan, haan,” in a million myriad ways.

Oh god, may be Asad was right. They did need to be alone. She didn’t want to share him with anyone either. And she couldn’t wait for tomorrow to come already! 

 

“Asad, you didn’t have to make breakfast today!” Zoya scolded him the next morning, rosy with birthday anticipation and glee. She’d told him several times not to do so last night too. “Get a full night’s rest. You don’t have to do that!” 

But a full night’s rest hadn’t been completely possible. Back home Aapi and Jeeju would wake her up at midnight by walking into her room singing the birthday song and carrying a birthday cupcake with a tiny lit candle. When she told Asad about that ritual he’d grumbled that he’d be too sleepy to follow in his in-law’s footsteps.

And that they’d spoiled her rotten and set her expectations too high.

But then he’d grabbed her awake at midnight to rub against her and wish her happy birthday. “Babe, I’m your birthday cake and I have a candle for you to blow,” he’d teased. 

“Mr. Khan, you are so wick-ed!” she’d slapped his shoulders before dissolving into a giggling fit. Mmm, birthday laughs and birthday se*x were a great way to start a birthday. 

Zoya looked down at the tray before her and smiled. “Pancakes? Yum!” She poked them around with a fork. She was pretty sure he’d made them even healthier somehow, besides the sliced bananas on top. Ah yes, right there: oats. Never mind. She loved oatmeal pancakes too. Just as long as no one rationed her syrup. 

Asad dashed off to get ready for work as she dipped her finger in the syrup to give Zaid a taste. 

Oh yes, he liked this. He smacked his lips and Dobby came up to sniff his face. Zaid batted him away and lifted his head toward his mama. He wanted more of that sweet and sticky thingie. 

“Mmmummum mumumm,” he babbled begging for more. His fingers tried to grasp her sleeve. She smeared more syrup on his lip. 

“I’ve ordered a special delivery for you so make sure you stay home today,” Asad called out from the closet. 

“Flowers?”

“And something else for our date.” 

“Ooh! Can’t you give me a hint?” 

Asad came out and brushed her nose with a finger, “no.” 

“Not even a little one?” 

He ignored her and picked up Zaid to play their goodbye game: A lot of belly and face kissies that made Zaid end up smelling like his dad. Hmm, Zaid would wonder why his Ammi kept her face buried in his hair half the morning.

That’s why.

The baby would giggle so much during this game that his face would turn all red and he’d be breathless with delight. And surprise, surprise. His daddy never minded the spit and slobber that got on to his cheek and collar—it was precious baby DNA transfer that even Akdu Jahanpanahs pardoned.

 

All day had been a giggle fest thanks to birthday wishes, calls, texts and gifts. Zoya’s eyes sparkled brighter than any star her husband could pluck for her. But it was one gift she waited most for. And when it arrived she hugged it to her in awe. Just when she thought she knew everything about Jahanpanah, he surprised her yet again. She had no idea how he’d pulled it off. 

“I got it,” Zoya purred on the phone when he took her call. 

“And?” 

“It’s sensational! But how did you—? Why did you?” 

Asad leaned back in his office chair. “I just wanted to see you in a dress. Take you to a special place … that’s why.” 

“But a dress? You’d be fine with me out in public in that?” Zoya ran her hand over the luxurious fabric. It was a deep, deep red … redder than blood. She still needed to try it on but she knew the fitted column dress would hug her just right. The thinnest straps held its front and back together. Well, what was left of the back that is. So wearing a bra was definitely out. With cutouts for her shoulders to peep through, the long sheer sleeves made up for all the skin the backlessness would expose. And the slit in front that ended mid-thigh? Whoa, was Jahanpanah on bhaang or something? 

“It’ll be just for me.” 

She didn’t question him anymore. Not even to ask how he was sure the dress would fit right. Who designed it? When did he even order it? 

“I can’t wait,” she whispered. And knowing him she also knew that she wouldn’t need to ask about how he’d arrange their rendezvous. How would she walk out the door without Ammi or Aapi or Jeeju seeing her dressed in this? And Zaid? What about Zaid? 


“Zaid is going to Chhoti Nani’s house. Nana will read him stories, Khala will sing to him, Phuphi will play peek-a-boo with him and Chachu will enact Zaid Miyan and Dobby Miya-oon ki rangeen duniya.” Zoya counted off on his little fingers and kissed Zaid’s toes as she got him ready for his special night out without his parents. 

But damn, she felt guilty. She’d even texted Asad. “Should we really be away from him for so long?” 

“He’ll be fine. Zaid’s a tiger. He’ll still be going strong and everyone else will be asleep around him.” 

That was true. Zaid was a study in constant motion. Like the Energizer bunny, he kept going and going and going. If he ever stilled, it was because he was sleeping. Because when awake he wiggled and squirmed and rocked and shimmied trying endlessly to reach for things to touch and taste. God alone knows how much of a workout it would be to chase him around once he started walking. 

“You be a good boy, OK?” Zoya kissed his tiny foot as she settled him in for a feeding. “I’m gonna miss you. Ammi loves you.” 

“Mmmmm uuummmm.” 

Zoya giggled. Zaid was really getting noisy these days as he fed with the greatest gusto. He smacked his lips and made such loud satisfied sounds that it was impossible to feed him anywhere else except behind a firmly closed door. Sometimes with music on.

 

She should have known that Asad wouldn’t let her step out of the house in this dress! When he’d said that it was going to be just for him, he meant it. For his eyes only. 

Her last birthday he’d taken three hours to scatter the stars on their ceiling. This year he was too busy to do any of the work himself so he’d outsourced it. Though when and how he’d arranged to have people sneak in and set up the terrace for some rooftop romance, she didn’t know. And didn’t want to know. Magicians were allowed their sleights of hand, showy diversions and trade secrets. 

He’d taken a long time to admire her first. Zoya had burned under his gaze. And become shy. 

“Look at me,” Asad said. 

She couldn’t. Zoya shook her head, tongue-tied as a virgin on her suhaag raat. He pulled her to him and then she did. 

“Happy birthday,” he whispered in her ear before running his tongue over its shell. 

She shivered, arching and clinging, expecting the birthday bash to be delayed. 

But he led her out of their room, up the stairs to the roof where she let out a tiny gasp at the transformation. A million twinkling lights competed with the stars overhead. And the riot of colorfully draped silks and brocades, high-pile throw rugs and cushions would have made any emperor jealous. It could have been a little slice of Morocco or Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, or the inside of royal tent from the middle ages.

Smitten, Zoya let out a giggle. “Jeez Jahanpanah, you re-created a harem! And look at me—a 21st century feminist, and I absolutely LOVE it! No wonder you didn’t want me to bring my phone. I won’t be needing it cos. we’ll be time-traveling!” 

Asad laughed. “That, and because I got you something special.” 

“Something more special than this? You are spoiling me, you know!” 

“I know.” He took her hand and pulled something out from his coat pocket. Jewelry?

But no. He knew her too well after all. She bounced on her toes when she saw what it was. A perfect blend of the 21st and 17th centuries that her Jahanpanah was. 

“The Apple Watch!” 

He knew she’d been salivating over it ever since its release. He’d been scoffing at it so that she wouldn’t pre-empt his gift and order one for herself. 

“You are so devious,” Zoya said as she allowed him to slip it on for her. “And so perfect.” She slipped her arms around his neck not needing to go up on her toes as much thanks to those sinful heels. 

They swayed in each other’s arms. They had the world to themselves. Asad’s hands spanned her waist to drag her closer. The dress fit perfectly over her curves. His hands traveled south to cup her bottom. “Good girl,” he breathed as he felt no panty line. Thinking of that slit in the front made him harder. 

She moaned. With a remote from his pocket he dimmed the lights before letting the cover of darkness cocoon them. 

“So a 16 year-old girl just wanted to hold hands with her husband under the stars. Let’s see what the older Zoya wants.” Asad flung his arm out to embrace the night sky. “I ordered the stars for you, babe. Show me what you got.” 

“Oh god, Asad, don’t put me on the spot like that! I have nothing. My mind is such mush right now. I can only feel you … hot and hard against me, your hands on me under these stars ...” She ground against him rotating her hips sensuously. 

“I’m already so wet for you. Can’t you smell my heat?” She sighed.

He jerked in helpless arousal, “Zoya!” 

She gripped his collar as she vined herself around him. “Say what Rumi would say on such a night. I can’t remember his words … if I could that’s what I’d say too. And then touch me … make love to me ... make me explode like a supernova that’ll burn brighter than this galaxy.”

“Mrs. Khan, you always make me do all the hard work,” he teased but his voice was ragged with desire. “Your scorching science nerdtalk is burning me up …” 

“Shh,” she placed a finger on his lips. “Woo me with some Rumi nerdtalk, please.” 

Zoya clung tighter to him and he sighed. His hands roamed her naked back molding her to him. She nuzzled his neck. 

“Which one?” 

“The one about the moon knowing the night and being one.” 

His voice lowered. “The way the night knows itself with the moon, be that with me?”

“Yes, that one,” she moaned. “I love it.”

He twirled and spun her in a thousand circles and as she slammed into his chest he whispered in her ear again. “When someone mentions the gracefulness of the nightsky, climb up on the roof and dance and say, Like this.” 

“Like this,” was all that Zoya could repeat after him as he spun and dipped her this time. Her nerve endings were on fire. The cool night air made her burn more. 

When he straightened her she stroked his cheek. There was that one line from Rumi she did remember after all. “When lovers moan, they’re telling our story… Like this,” and she kissed him deeply as her leg took advantage of that voluptuous slit to slither up and hook over his thigh. 

“That’s my girl,” he said as they came up for a breath and his hand crawled up her bare thigh. “I am a sky where spirits live,” he continued. “Stare into this deepening blue, while the breeze says a secret.

Like this.” 

She wiggled against him, hot and breathless from this poetic foreplay.

Unable to bear her heat against him any more Asad carried her to that gorgeous half-tent of silks and brocade, zari and satin to lower her into the whisper-soft cloud of bedding. He was quick to shed his clothes; but he wouldn’t let her do the same. Asad couldn’t resist a few more words from Rumi as he traced tiny kisses up her knee. “The stars will be watching us, and we will show them what it is to be a thin crescent moon. You and I unselfed, will be together.”

“Like this,” she cried out as she threw her head back to feel his electric mouth on her. Only when he’d exacted a shuddering orga*sm from her did he help her out of the dress. He wanted to see her longer in it; but he also wanted to see her naked body glowing under the stars. 

“The way the night knows itself with the moon, be that with me,” Asad repeated as he entered her after turning her over on her knees and elbows. He loved it best like this too. The rawness of this lovemaking allowed him to take her deeper and the sounds she made brought him too precariously close to the edge … The struggle to rein in his undoing as he hastened hers was that much se*xier. 

“Unselfed … come undone for me …” he gasped, straining at the effort to control himself. 

A thin crescent moon … be that with me …

She got that now. Her fingers twitched on the silks as she felt him move deeper inside her ... impaling her … filling her … touching her womb. His hands steadied her hips as he powered into her … thicker … fuller. She felt stretched and … yes, a thin crescent moon … because they’d be wrapped so close into each other that they’d be one …

No, even less than one …

And the tremors came then, cascading over one another.

“Aaannh … Asaadd … I’m coming. I’m coming!”

 

The jealous stars winked down at their still bodies and thrashing hearts from a moonless sky. Noisy sub-lunary lovers must combust and flare … and become seamless … supernova …

… like this. 

 

“Do we have to?” she complained. 

“Yes,” Asad replied as he fixed his pants and started to button his cuffs. 

She watched him dress under those stars. She was still naked and replete, unwilling to move or get dressed. She wanted to romp more on the bed of stars. 

“But why?” As if asking him a lot of questions would dissuade him. But hey, it was her birthday still and may be she’d get away with it. 

“Because they’re waiting for us. Who knows, there may be more surprises for you on your birthday. The day’s not done yet, babe.”

Zoya huffed. Nice, using her own birthday against her. “But I wanted to spend more time here in the 17th century.” 

“We will. When we get back.” 

“Won’t it be fun to watch everyone’s faces if I walked in wearing this dress?” 

“You wouldn’t!” he yelped. 

“Relax, Mr. Khan. I wouldn’t do that to you, OK? Trust me.” 

He snorted. 

“Asad!” 

“What?” 

“You behave, OK?”

“Or what will you do?”

“I’ll … I’ll run downstairs naked!” 

His eyes bugged. And then that slow smile curled his lips. “Do it.”

“Allah miyan, what’s wrong with you Mr. Khan?” 

“Stop pretending to be a horrified virgin, Mrs. Khan. You know you want to do it!” 

“Fine,” she giggled and rose to totter on her heels which she’d still kept on during their lovemaking—those were the unwritten Jahanpanah rules. 

She grabbed her tossed dress and slung it over her bare shoulder like a cowgirl. And then she marched to the door and down the stairs without holding the bannister. Asad followed close behind. At the landing, he couldn’t bear it anymore. He scooped her up in his arms to carry her to their room. 

Zoya smirked in victory. “Hah! Took you long enough!” she teased. 

“I was taking in the delicious sights along the way.” 

“Mr. Khan, step out of the 17th century. I’m not a piece of scenery!” 

“Yes, you are babe. Yes you are. More majestic than the Grand Canyon or the Niagara Falls.”

Now how could a girl resist this hyperbole? She patted his cheek. “You must be deluded, or blind Mr. Khan, but I love you more for it!”

 

And another surprise did wait for her at the Siddiqui house. It was time for yet another family portrait. Zaid had already starred a leading role with all his aunts and uncles and grandparents in at least a hundred professionally arranged photographs. Because everyone had also wanted individual shots with the little suited-booted Zaid. 

And good boy that he was, he didn’t fuss … well except for that one time when he needed a change and his Khala did the honors of cleaning him up. Ayaan Chachu had tried to help but Khala had to throw him out of the room for being no help at all. And then there was also that one time when Zaid got snippy because, hello? Where was his Ammi? And Abbu? ABBU—

Fat tears had gathered in the corner of his eyes and spilled; and those quivering lips would make angels weep tonight. And soon … it would only be a matter of seconds before he'd start to bellow. 

Thank god that his Dadi had shushed him and then he’d beamed again when everyone sang his Abbu’s song for him: “Zindagi ki yahi reet hai.” This time Khala was really happy with Ayaan Chachu as he played the guitar. 

Zaid flung his arms and legs in tune with the song fully aware of his pint-sized charm. Because who knew baby clothes came in tuxedos. They made patent leather shoes in that size? And how did Anwar Nanu think of bringing this little thing for him all the way from New York? Looks like Nanu had a thing for suited cutie pies. First Big bear, now lil’ Zaid … 

Most of the pictures were done. They were just waiting for the star’s parents to complete the family picture. And when they came, a cheer went up; Zaid was the happiest to be reunited with them. A quick feed and re-bonding in a quiet corner in his Ammi’s room as she apologized for abandoning him by giving him a thousand kisses … and he was brand new again.

As they posed for the family portrait Zoya had loved to see her son chewing on his red bow tie even as Asad tried to grab it out of the tiny hands.

“Mr. Khan, let it be. I want him to be chewing on it in the picture. It’s so cute! And those bow ties are so ridiculous anyways. I love my son’s way better!”

Asad shook his head in rueful defeat. As much as he strived for perfection, his wife pedestalized imperfection. And truth be told, her way was always more playful, enchanting … and kind of perfect in its own way. 

It was anybody’s guess as to who Zaid would take after. 

And so that’s how this 16X20 family portrait would look displayed in various houses in Bhopal and America: A gaggle of adults surrounding a Zaid munching happily on his bow tie. Only he would know how many kala tikas crowded behind his ear, if he could count that is. His Khala and Phuphis wanted to be by his feet as he sat enthroned in his dad’s lap with his dimpling mom on their side. They had to do many takes because it was hard to get the family to look into the camera; invariably a pair of eyes would stray to Zaid. 

 

His mom would tell him later that it was her birthday that day when they took this picture. And that she was the only one who fought for his right to chew on his bow tie. Because bow ties were evil. And Zaid would grow up to protest perfect little bow ties all his life too. Because his mom was right. Well, mostly.

Ayaan Chachu flanked him on the right. Chachu didn’t even know that he had Khala’s lipstick on his collar. Zaid had giggled in triumph when he saw Chachu blanch when Zaid pulled at the smeared collar—it looked good enough to eat.

Even Dobby was there, perched on Anwar’s shoulder. He was also sporting a red bow tie that he’d happily love to chew on too. He had wanted to be on Asad’s shoulder but had to settle for Nanu’s instead.

Hmmphf. 

But at least Dobby got to star as the trusty sidekick in some portraits of just Zaid Miyan and Dobby Miya-oon. Yes, wouldn’t these pictures make great cover art for the comic books based on their adventures? Someone should give it some serious thought. It was money in the bank.

 

There was cake of course to cap off the festivities and Zaid even got a lick of the frosting. So did Dobby. 

And Khala and Ayaan Chachu even performed a skit and a dance on “Pataka guddi” for his Ammi as Zaid clapped at “Ali, Ali, Ali, Ali,” in the refrain before finally falling asleep in his Zeenat Nani’s arms.

“Thak gaya, meri jaan,” Raziya cooed. More kala tikas were applied. (Zoya often joked about this: "we can start a kajal business just from the back of Zaid's head!") 

“Thak nahin gaya, battery khatam ho gayi. Charge ho raha hai,” Anwar added. 

“iCloud pe backup kar raha hai,” Humaira piped up. 

 

“Are you sure it’ll be OK?” Zoya whispered an hour or so later. 

“Trust me,” Asad said this time.

It was too late and thankfully not too cold. And he was prepared as he led her and a heavily bundled up Zaid to the terrace. The weather had cooperated perfectly and the stars aligned just right this year. Either Mr. Khan was really a magician and getting better each year, or may be it was all Zaid and his superpowers.  

“Mr. Khan, if he catches a cold this time I’m telling everyone this was your idea!” Zoya said in a low growl.

Because the last time had been a bit of a scare.

Even though it was just a minor sniffle.

Still, the mom brigade had swooped down on them with a thousand gharelu nuskhas. Zoya had burst into tears when she saw Raziya. “You were right! I’m a horrible mom,” she’d sobbed. 

“Chupp, pagal! I’m the terrible mom,” Raziya had hugged and soothed her. “Sirf chhota sa cold hai. He’ll be fine. Sher hai hamara Zaid.” And I’ve done so much worse, she’d thought to herself. I’ve been a terrible mom to you. 

Zoya had felt better after that and done her own research into American pediatric solutions; Asad meanwhile went and purchased top of the line humidifiers and air purifiers. Lots of water and rest, vicks rubs, steamy air as per the doctor’s instructions, and Zaid was good as new pretty soon thank you, Allah miyan! 

Asad remoted the lights on and led them to that slice of 17th century. He held Zaid as she settled on the plush bedding and then handed him to her. Once she’d nestled the baby next to her Asad got in too and covered them with a heavy-duty rajai. He flicked the lights off. 

“Oh god Asad, it’s so beautiful,” she sighed looking up at the stars.

“You’re welcome.” 

“Mr. Khan!” she stage-whispered but with no real steam. She felt mellow and generous … and just right. Like Goldilocks. 

She turned on her side to hold a sleeping Zaid closer and dropped a kiss on his head which was covered with a hand-knitted cap his Dadi had made for him. This was heaven. Zoya moved her arm out of the rajai—she was already toasty by now—and pressed her palm against the baby’s heart to feel his deep breathing ... dhak-dhak-dhak-dhak-dhak-dhak it played a steady beat.

Asad reached out his hand to cover hers.

With Zaid safely and snugly sandwiched between them, they nested high in the sky’s velvety and zari wala embrace.

And they slept like babies. 

It had been a long and perfect day, thank you Allah miyan.

 

 

Song in Title:

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): “Jai Ho”





Dec 5, 2015

Yeh Chaand Ka Chikna Saabun Kuchh Der Mein Gal Jaayega, Aaja (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 24 times)

Chapter 121

 

He envied them. That laughter. The shrieks and giggles made him feel left out. He could hear them at the kitchen sink as he finished up his lonely breakfast at the edge of their frothy, bubbly world. From the sounds of it, it was a glitter-glazed world from which he was excluded. Locked out. 

Lately Asad had even changed places from his favorite seat at the head of the table so he could watch Zoya bathe Zaid at the kitchen sink. 

Yes, this was the same seat that Zoya had mistakenly occupied on her first morning at the Khan house. And then he’d walked in, seen her in it and blown a gasket. 

Here she was, not knowing her place again. First, she’d invaded his bed the previous night and then argued with him. "Main iss kamre mein pehle aayi thi toh yeh kamra mera hua. New York mein aisa hi hota hi!" 

"Yeh apka New York nahin hai! This is my room," he'd thundered back.

Hah! Those days he prayed that she'd leave for New York at the earliest. "Bahut ehsaan hoga apka iss mulk par!" he'd taunted at their first meeting. No correct that. First collision.

It was uncanny how Ammi had tried to pacify him that night when he’d raged at Ms. Farooqui for being “nihayati badtameez and bad-dimaag.” 

“Asad, sabra karo beta. Mehmaan hai, do-char din mein chali jayegi. Usne saari umr thodi na yahan rehna hai!” 

Famous last words!

And the next morning, this. Barely holding on to his temper he’d told her to vacate his chair. Very curtly. (Of course at that time he hadn’t known that her pizza slice was hugging his butt. He was a goner. The slicing and dicing of the Akdu karela had already begun). She'd already marked him. 

His undermining had begun the second he’d set eyes on her. 

He’d glared at her with all the venom he could muster that morning. But never one to be down for long, Zoya's brow had arched at his blunt dismissal. He had been rude to her at each meeting; she’d called him out on it the night before: “Aap hamesha mujhse ladne pe amada rehte hain!”

That morning those lips had pursed … and then that mischief-making farishta had peeked through. And so had that elfin dimple.

No, this time she didn’t yell back at him. May be because Ammi and Najma were there. Or because she was a guest in his house. 

It felt like it was years ago … or was it just yesterday that Ms. Farooqui had spouted yet another of her shayari gems? 

Ruhani sukoon aur dil main chain hona chahiye,

Ruhani sukoon aur dil main chain hona chahiye,

Apka naam Asad nahi, chairman hona chahiye!  

As ridiculous it had been, it turned out to be the perfect ice-breaker. How quickly her silly sher had diffused the nuclear tension. He still couldn't believe how surly he'd been with her.

Najma and Ammi had tried to cover their delighted smiles behind their hands.

This was a first. Finally someone had come along to challenge and unseat the fierce and frosty Akdu.

The rest? History.

A sassy Jhansi ki Rani had continued to trump a stick-up-his-ass Jahanpanah.

She'd got her revenge on him a few weeks later. Taken his seat. Again. And, made him serve her.

It was meant to be. He would be needing all the practice to get used to his displacement and undoing.

Asad grinned at the memories as he sipped his coffee. Funny how he smiled more easily now. And funny how he didn’t get migraines from clenching his jaw so tight in those joyless days …

Those Zoyaless days. 

That first night when she’d blundered into his bed, he’d seethed and gnashed his teeth at her girly clutter scattered all around his room.

It was sacrilege. She'd defiled his place and marked her territory. It was an act of war. On his turf.

And now when he saw the baby clutter around the table and counters …

Nope. Not even then did his blood pressure spike. He’d learned to let go of his tight policing of emotional boundaries and borders. He’d closed the door firmly on the obsessively neat but barren 17th century. 


“ZAID!” Zoya’s squeal popped the memory bubble in Asad’s head. “Allah miyan, what’s wrong with you! You did that on purpose didn’t you, you little monkey?” 

Zaid cackled in merry mutiny and splashed his mom even more. He laughed with his head thrown back when she tickled him. 

His little baby tub fit just right in the kitchen sink. And the sink was at just the right height to not hurt her back. It felt a little sore on some days. So she had problem-solved in her own unique way. 

Asad watched Zoya impatiently shove her hair back off her forehead. Baby shampoo bubbles snowflaked her hair. Of course. She never remembered to tie up her hair before doing anything messy.

It was as if … 

Dilshad loved these daily dramas too. 

It was way better than the soaps on TV. She’d just finished talking to Najma and smiled serenely from the living room as she watched Asad tie Zoya’s hair back with a clip. Then with his handkerchief he proceeded to wipe the soap residue off her hair.

OK fine, he tolerated some messes. But that didn’t keep him from making things neat and right as much as possible. 

For a flash, Asad’s body hid Zoya from view as he tied up her hair. He scra*ped a lazy thumbnail deliberately over her now-exposed nape.

Thankfully Zaid’s babbling covered up her shocked hiss. 

Zoya felt that touch zing right through her and she turned to mock-glare at her husband. But that glare melted into fierce longing and accusation: how dare you do this now when my soapy hands are full and we have an audience? And, that too when in a minute you’ll walk out and I won’t see you for 9-10 hours! She blew the suds on her hand toward him in a flying, flake-speckled kiss for revenge.

The gauntlet had been thrown.

Zaid gurgled in glee at this game. He wanted in too—he blew his own bubbles at his dad. 

Asad dodged expertly by hiding behind Zoya and then popping his head out on her other side. Zaid goo-goo and ga-ga-ed in delight.

Dilshad didn’t even know when her son had become so adept at these domestic tasks like tying up his wife’s hair or teasing his son. It looked as if he’d been doing this forever.

But he hadn’t.

Mera ziddi Asad, she used to think of him in his previous Akdu avatar, eternally worried that no one would be able to pierce his adamantine shell. 

Aur ab?

The explosion of baby toys and paraphernalia didn’t seem to bother him any more. Now, at bath time, he’d even learned how to avoid Zaid’s splashing and seeking fingers by holding his son’s wet hands and planting a quick peck on his sleek head before leaving for work.

Dilshad beamed. This daily soap was her favorite—the reruns were highly addictive and got the highest TRPS in her book. 

She watched Asad nudge Zoya away after Zaid'd been rinsed and nod to her to hold up the towel as he picked up the squirmy, drippy bundle. Zoya enfolded the baby in his fluffy towel painted with giraffes, zebras, elephants and lions. She slipped the hooded end over his head after wiping the impish face. Zaid chattered and cooed, snug between his Ammi and Abbu.

The rubber ducky slid from his hands. He’d just spotted his dad’s tie and missed his parents’ familiar eye lock.

But his Dadi didn’t.

She rolled her eyes. Here we go again. 

Her hawk eyes didn’t miss Zoya massaging her lower back either. Allah! She’d forgotten to call the massage woman. Dilshad got cracking. And she missed her son glance her way and then taking advantage of his mom’s distraction plant a quick kiss on his wife’s surprised lips. 

She blushed and dimpled. Her scandalized whisper of “Mr. Khan, Ammi’s watching!” made him grin in apology and victory. But that grin was short-lived. His son had managed to wiggle out of the restraining towel. He yanked his dad’s tie before munching on it—he’d been eyeing it ever since his dad came over to the sink.

Asad yelped.

Zaid crowed and tugged harder. The tie was soft and soothing. He mashed his itchy gums harder on the silken fabric singing his favorite song. 

“MmmmmmhHHmmmmm.”

 

At work Asad smiled a half hour later looking at the picture Zoya had just sent: Zaid wearing Abbu’s loosely-knotted tie, and nothing else. The boy was still gnawing on its end—it probably wouldn’t surivive the kid’s erupting teeth.

 

On weekends Asad got his own turn with Zaid and bath time—and he made up for all the lost weekdays with a vengeance. Zoya had convinced him that daddy and son could romp in the tub in the bathroom. And there they played with bubbles, yellow duckies and ships. They splattered and splashed—well Zaid splashed. His daddy mostly wiped surfaces down with a stack of washcloths.

Now if Asad had his way he’d spend hours in there with Zaid—cleaning out the tiny spaces between Zaid’s toes, gently scrubbing his ears and each little perfect fingernail.

But Zaid felt impatient. 

He had so many things to explore, worlds to conquer, and his dad just kept getting in the way. He wanted to grab duckies and shampoo bottles. He wanted to make ships fly. Everything looked edible … he wanted to suck on soft washcloths to ease the itch on his gums. And besides, it was such fun to watch his dad make this weird sound whenever he tried to do that.

When Asad wasn’t wiping down wet surfaces he was batting his son’s busy little hands that got into everything. The kid wouldn’t stay still so that he could get in between the toes for the cleanest clean. No amount of gentle fatherly chiding would make his son listen. 

“Mr. Khan, enough!” Zoya would have to remind the Jahanpanah and his shehzaada. “He’s getting all wrinkly now.” 

Another distant memory bubbled up: Same tub, him in it.

Ms. Farooqui intruding on his privacy and sanity.

As usual.

First his bed. Then his chair. And now … What was she? Goldilocks in reverse?

In hindsight it was obvious that destiny was sending him multiple messages. The constant encounters, the bumping into and falling in each other's arms ...

He’d been more shocked than angry that day and had nearly jumped up in confused alarm. Only her sensible squeak, “baithe rahiye!” had kept him from a performing a full monty that day.

Good god! What shayari would have fallen from her lips if that had happened, he’d often wondered and even made the mistake of asking her one day.

“Well, I would certainly have recited some sher if you’d saluted me, all proud and erect!” Zoya had sassed him much, much later. She’d snapped her fingers and rattled off a new one:

“Shan se uthte hain jab bina kameez ke,

Shan se uthte hain jab bina kameez ke,

Salaam dua karte hain Jahanpanah apni kaneez se!”

Imp! 

 

His dignity had lain sprawled and splattered in a bubbly mess that day. He’d been too stunned to find her naughty peek and muttered, “six pack?” even remotely amusing. It had incensed him more.

Yes, that was the beginning of the end of Akdu Ahmed Khan. He was about to be Goldilocksed.


At least he’d been spared her shayari that day. Lucky him. May be she’d been too stunned herself to frame an incredibly foolish sher.

But it hadn’t stopped her from anointing him with a new nickname; it had stuck with him ever since. He’d been gleefully objectified to his six packs. She'd even giggled that infernal giggle as a parting shot.

“Jahanpanah, hurry,” she urged now, and pop went the memory again. “We’ll get late. Aunty’s already texted me like a bajillion times!”

 

They were all at the Siddiqui House this weekend. Nuzzhat was moping. After a short engagement ceremony, a lovesick and knuckle-dragging Faiz had gone back to the US.

Another week, and it would be Nikhat’s turn.

The nest was getting emptier. 

Zoya was moping too: Aapi and Jeeju had left a week ago. Between herself, Nuzzhat and Shireen, they planned to give misery so much company that it’d choke to death and throw itself off a cliff.

“And Zaid Miyan and Dobby Miya-oon were driving through the dark jungle in an open jeep racing to get home to save Ammi and Abbu,” Ayaan was re-writing history and entertaining his nephew.

And his nephew’s mom and aunts too.

Who, after all, could resist the tales of Zaid miyan and Dobby miya-oon.

Zaid’s eyes and mouth rounded in wonder as his Chachu got started on the much-awaited sound and special effects. His Dhoni bear lay forgotten. Chachu made sounds of jungle animals that the daring duo would have heard on their journey through the wilderness: Cheetahs and lions roared—- 

But then Zoya and Humaira interrupted by singing “What does the fox say?” 

Ayaan shushed them. This was no time for comedy even though Zaid loved that song. 

Because right now owls hooted and tree branches rustled menacingly. The granddads made their own scary howls and growls and Zaid’s head whipped about trying to keep up with the Dadu-Nanu surround sound. 

Dobby snoozed under the coffee table. He didn’t need to hear no stories. His crime-fighting credentials and trophies were well-documented. 

“Terrified bats whooshed out from their cavernous lair as if disturbed by some eerie presence,” Ayaan continued in a dropped voice.

The suspense was mounting. 

Zaid’s fists paused for a second in mid-air. Then his arms flapped as if mimicking the panicked creatures. Bats can fly? But aren’t they for beating red balls over the stands—-

Just like Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Oh, helicopter shot … duh, of course bats can fly.

His mom had told him so.

(And Mahendra Singh Dhoni was his Mamu Jaan—his dad had told him so.)

“The cold fog rolled in ... ” 

Dadu click-clacked his fingers to add to the drama. Nanu made a whooshing sound. 

Fog? What’s fog? Chachu must obvio mean frog. 

“And suddenly a ghostly figure appeared on the road. It was an evil jinn who blocked their path. It was wearing a white saree and had flowing grey hair that reached the ground. In its bloody claws it grasped a burning branch.” 


“Please, it was a vanilla-scented candle. It was all we could find at such short notice,” Zoya mused softly. Humaira and Nikhat snickered.

“Tauba, tauba,” Dadi exclaimed. “Yeh manhoosiyat sunana zaroori hai chhote bachche ko? Darr jayega bechara.” 

Zoya giggled at the magical retelling of Operation Pyaasi Atma. It brought back delicious memories. She snuck a peek at Asad from under her lashes; there was that telltale half-smile. 

 

“Dadi, apko kya pata! This really happened,” Ayaan winked at Zoya, his comrade-in-arms. Her giggling had nearly given them away that day. It was a wonder that Bhaijaan didn’t suspect her role in it.

 

“Sab bakwas hai,” his grandmother declared. “It would have been on the news if it really happened.” 

She frowned when she heard Zoya and Ayaan hoot uproariously. Humaira shook her head. She knew this story all too well. How she wished she could have witnessed it first hand!

“Dadi,” she said. “We paid the media to keep this out of the news! Khandan ki badnaami ho jati ... naak katt jaati!” 

“Hmmmph!” Dadi frowned at being taken for a fool. She rocked Zaid in her arms in suppressed fury.

“No Dadi, it is true,” Zoya added with a deepening dimple. “The evil jinn with crooked teeth got his face nicely rearranged by Super Mukka!” She and Humaira giggled more and high-fived.

“Hey, how dare you!” Ayaan roared and chased after them, an enraged and puffing dragon. 

They flung cushions at the Pyaasi Atma. Even Nuzzhat brightened at this merriment. She was at her mother’s knee having her hair oiled. 

“Bhai, why don’t you say something? Your biwi and saali are being totally badtameez!” Ayaan panted.

Asad smirked behind the newspaper.

It rustled as he turned a page and studiously ignored the drama.

“Badtameez dil, badtameez dil, badtameez dil, maney na, maney na!” Zoya and Humaira sang in all their besura glory to add more salt to Ayaan’s wounds.

Zaid was loving this real-life comedy and action film—it was a Bollywood musical! The complete package—action, suspense, horror … and now comedy and item number! He clapped and drooled offering his own sound effects.

“Bhai!” Ayaan roared in humiliation and dismay. “A little help here?” 

Asad sighed and put the paper away. He rose to pick up Zaid from Dadi’s arms. “Come beta, we’ll go to a quieter place. An evil jinn is being stuffed back into its bottle here—and it could get ugly.”

Zoya and Humaira shrieked in victory at Ayaan’s crestfallen face. This punch from Mukka Ahmed Khan had to hurt just as much.

Operation Pyaasi Atma had been aborted once again—with even more finality than the last time. 

Nuzzhat guffawed too and thumped the floor in sweet appreciation. Even Shireen didn’t mind her son being taken down a notch; it was good to see Nuzzhat laughing again. 

“Ye lo theek kar diya,” Raziya said to Zoya who was still hopping around dodging Ayaan’s retaliatory blows against his biwi and saali. She’d assumed her warrior-ninja meets nagin-pose by now. 

Asad turned around and pointed the sight to Zaid. 

Zaid was wearing a white kurta pajama set with a red brocade vest that his Chhoti Nani had got for him. It matched his Abbu’s. And Chachu had sculpted his hair into a faux mohawk.

He looked fierce.

Well, about as fierce as a pint-sized shayar can look. There was a matching brocade topi too but that had already been mashed to a pulp by Zaid’s razor mouth and had now been added to the pile of Dobby’s toys. 

“Mmmaaaammma …” Zaid babbled squirming to be closer to his warrior mama. 

“I know,” Asad laughed, “how much do you love being Jhansi ki Rani’s son!” 

 

With one last triumphant glare at Ayaan, Zoya took the wooly mess from Raziya and settled back down next to her. She wanted to learn knitting and this was her first attempt. She was technically making a muffler for her Abbu. But it had run into technical difficulties. Too many dropped stitches were making it holey and lopsided. Raziya’s surgical repairs had rescued it time and again, but it was on life support—hanging by a thread; being unraveled more than knitted had made it lumpy in places. 

But her father, her biggest cheerleader in the sport, was impatient for it to be completed. “Uss jagah par aur bhi garam rahega, beta,” he soothed her when his daughter made faces at the unsightly lumps she was producing. 

Zoya’s failed attempts at knitting gave Ayaan more ammunition for his comeback.

“Please, it’ll be better if Mamu wears a chhuchhoondar around his neck for warmth. It’ll be more attractive. And stink less.” 

More pillows came sailing at him from Mona’s army.

“Raaburt,” his Bhabhi mused. “You wouldn’t want to mess with me when I have a pair of knitting needles in my hand, would you? Now that would be incredibly foolish,” she waggled her brows at him. 

“Exactly,” Humaira added. “Aapi’s muffler has gotten long enough to even strangle someone with.” She bit her tongue and looked at Shireen in apology. 

Shireen didn’t mind this blasphemous talk that much. Because both Nuzzhat and Nikhat were laughing.

Her eyes misted. How had she missed their quiet and gentle blossoming into young women? And now they’d go so far away—- 

Ayaan crashed into the center table and everything went flying. Dobby scrammed from under it in terror. 

That’s why. Her son and his spectacular catastrophes had always managed to distract Shireen. Each time. Everyday brought new damage control strategies and charges. And she’d missed out on watching her daughters grow up. 

Shireen sniffed and turned to see Raziya smack her forehead again. Her reading glasses jiggled.

Ya Allah, another dropped stitch? Poor Bhabhi. And poor Bhaijaan. Shireen knew he would definitely, in fact proudly, wear this thing … whatever it would turn out to be.

But she had to give Bhabhi credit. 

The old Raziya would have yanked the mess from Zoya’s hands and either burned it or just finished it off herself. But Raziya 2.0 (as Ayaan sometimes called his mother-in-law behind her back) was infinitely more patient. She knew that if Zoya really wanted to learn and master knitting, she’d have to go through the process of dropping and picking up stitches. 

“Frustration is all part of the process, beta,” Shireen heard Raziya telling Zoya all the time when cries of “Allah miyan, what’s wrong me?” became particularly loud and desperate. She added soothing kissing sounds which Shireen had never heard Bhabhi make. 

And you should see her with Zaid. In their family and friends circle there had been some muted whispers of Raziya being a typical sauteli Ammi. But if you saw her with Zaid, or even without Zaid, you’d forget that terrible word. Zaid was her flesh and blood … even if he wasn’t.

Because he just was. 

It was as if that deathly encounter with Tanveer in the factory had knocked all the badness loose out of her. It was as if Zoya’s Ammi had taken over her …

Shireen shook herself.

She firmly believed this in some corner of her heart. But she never said it to anyone. They’d only make fun of her for being silly.

And Shireen knew that Siddiqui Saheb would cherish this muffler-scarf thingy no matter how ratty it turned out to be. It was a labor of love. 

“First practice on me,” he told his older daughter. “Then you can make something nice for Asad and Zaid.” 

“Haha, Mamu just said that this isn’t nice!” Ayaan snorted and dodged another missile. “But finish this before winter is over, Khuda ke vaaste,” Raaburt teased Mona.

“Nahin, nahin,” Siddiqui would say. “Hum summer mein bhi pehen lenge. Waise bhi you kids blast the AC too high.” 

Shireen smiled. Fathers and daughters. She remembered Nuzzhat’s attempts to knit a scarf for Rashid one winter when she was 15. She had managed to knit about 11-12 rows … it was probably sitting somewhere, unfinished, in some dark drawer. She’d come across it when they were moving back into the Siddiqui house. A young Nuzzhat had chosen a bright purple yarn because it was her favorite color that year. Rashid would probably never have worn it … or may be he would have. He wore and used all the things that Nikhat made for him.  

Yes, having girls was heartwarming in its own way. They wormed deeper without crashes, scratches and damage control.

But then they went away … too far … stretching your heartstrings thin.

Uss damage control ka kya …

 

“Oh. My. God. It’s beautiful!” Zoya gushed the next night. They were back home. Asad had just returned from work. “But it looks kinda familiar …” 

Asad chuckled. “It should.” He’d been able to get away from work sooner today and had stopped to pick up something special for her on the way. 

She peered closer at the doll. It was the prototype for the ones the factory would start producing soon if all went according to schedule: a cloth doll, about a foot and half tall with realistic features and hair—she was a bride gorgeously attired in a red bridal abaya-style suit. The mehendi on her hands was exquisite, the makeup flawless, jewelry state-of-the-art.

Zoya frowned. This was weird. Why did this seem like déjà vu?

Asad came closer and squeezed the doll’s hand. 

“Qubool nahin hai,” the doll declared in a strong and firm voice. 

“What! That’s supposed to be me?” She squealed in surprised delight. It was only then that she noticed the doll wearing jeans and sneakers under the long abaya top.

Grinning, he pressed the other hand. 

“Allah miyan, what’s wrong with you!” 

Zoya’s laugh turned into a surprised snort. She gasped and choked and Asad stroked her back waiting for her to catch her breath.

“Oh god, Asad! This is hilarious, and so perfect!” She wiped her eyes. “But seriously, this is what we’ll be making?” 

Asad shrugged out of his suit jacket and went to hang it up. “We don’t have to. I got them to make this one especially for you. It’s supposed to have a backpack—check the box it came in. And the pièce de résistance? A miniature pepper spray!”

“This is MA!” she sighed. “So cute.”

And Zoya’s mind was already off and racing. “No, it’s a super idea! We can have bridal dolls who say they don’t want to get married—they want to study first! Won’t that be cool?”

“Yes, just as cool as the Jhansi ki Rani dolls. But may be you can tone the message down to: ‘I’ll study first and get married later.’ You don’t want protestors camped out at our doorstep saying that we’re demolishing centuries of Indian culture and values by selling empowerment dolls!” 

“Aww, wasn’t I the empowerment doll that demolished centuries of the Jahanpanah’s cherished culture and values?”

He laughed, “good one, Mrs. Jahanpanah. Good one.” 

Empowerment dolls! How perfect. Zoya rubbed her hands in glee.

This was really happening. 

Who knew that she’d come to India and be part of making action figures of Indian and other multi-ethnic supergirls! So cool! They’d have Mary Kom, Sunita Williams, Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, Arunima Sinha dolls, along with an entire line of historical figures: Rani Padmini, Razia Sultan, Jodha bai, Rani Durgawati, Meera Bai, Sarojini Naidu … 

Of course Jhansi ki Rani would be the centerpiece of the collection: Action figures in full battle gear and the baby on her back—all detachable and functioning on their own. They had wanted all the details of her costume right—even the shield was a to-scale replica of one they'd seen at Gwalior. They had consulted historians from Bhopal University to write up a brief storybook to introduce each of the historically accurate special edition dolls. And they were still in talks with the Malala Fund organizers.

Zoya so badly wanted to have a Malala doll ... 

But not everyone was on board. Their PR and marketing consultants had expressed unease—this was all very good and noble, but would people really buy these dolls?

“I would,” Zoya had insisted. But she got that these dolls would be expensive and therefore not as enticing to an average buyer. 

“Look, I’m not competing with the Barbies or the cheap stuff coming from China. In fact I want my dolls to be the anti-Barbie. So yes, these won’t be in every corner store …” 

She hated Barbies. Aapi and Jeeju had never got her one. If she ever got one as a gift from friends for birthdays they usually gave it away during the Thanksgiving or Christmas toy drives around their community. You couldn’t really play with them because the accessories were so tiny; the body image issues bothered her too as she grew older. What was it that Ellen Degeneres had said about Barbies? That the top-heavy body shape was so unrealistic, if a real woman was built like that she’d tip over on her face. 

“American Girl” dolls were more her thing. In fact Zoya cherished them more because they had personality and history, possibly also because they were more expensive—she’d saved up half the money from her allowance and doing chor*es, and Jeeju had chipped in for the rest. 

Aapi had brought her old doll with her this time and Asad had loved it. 

“Is this how you were at 9? I wish I’d known you then. Did you used to say ‘Allah miyan, what’s wrong with you,’ even then?”

And that’s what she wanted for her dolls: to be loved and cherished even long after the kids had outgrown them. It hadn’t taken Zoya too long to persuade the designers. “These dolls’ll be big enough to play with and have realistic accessories: clothes, hats, shoes, bags, backpacks, computers etc. They’ll be soft and huggable, have voice recorders …”

“But they won’t be cheap. Not everyone’s going to be able to afford them.” The consultants reminded her. 

“I understand. But I don’t want them to be cheap … or super expensive either,” Zoya pouted in frustration. 

“Aapi, it’s true we don’t want them to be too exclusive,” Humaira, her partner in the venture, had said in one of their meetings. “But it might need some kind of luxury branding. How comfortable are you with that?” she asked Zoya. 

Zoya cringed. 

“And remember, we probably won’t even be breaking even in the beginning,” Humaira added.

That was OK, Zoya reasoned to herself; they’d margined for that—up to a limit. They had such good ideas. It was just that moving them from paper to reality was going to be tricky. And costly.

She wanted some kind of fair trade certification which took time and money too. They were in talks with Self-Employed Women’s Associations. They were even considering adding a microcredit feature to the non-profit part of their organization. 

There was so much to do! And how do you reconcile ethical and socially responsible for-profit business practices with a non-profit outfit on the side?

They had already contracted with a local fashion institute to design the clothing for the dolls—it would have the designers’ labels as an added incentive.

Fingers crossed, if they were able to keep afloat long enough then next year she wanted to have a kind of fashion contest—Project Runway-style (she loooved Tim Gunn!)—where designers made clothing for models who would carry identically-dressed dolls with them on the ramp for the finale. May be have a clothing line with young girls in school uniforms or sports uniforms, in martial arts robes … and release it on children’s day or National Girl Child day—- 

Were they being too idealistic? Too ambitious? Was this doomed to failure?

“So what?” Asad told her one night when she’d been especially down about this project ever taking off. “It’s good to be idealistic and ambitious. I would expect nothing less of you. And if it fails, it fails. We’ll move on.” 

“Really? You won’t think of this as a colossal waste of money?” 

“Look, we’re fortunate enough and blessed. We’re trying to make a difference, not defraud anyone. Jab iraade nek aur hausla buland ho toh duniya ki koyi takat humein aage badhne se nahi rok sakti.”

“Inshallah,” she whispered. 

Zaid was fast asleep in his dad’s arms. Asad stroked his hair. “Can we make boy dolls too?” he mused. “With hair that can be styled into a Mohawk?” 

Zoya smiled. Finally Jahanpanah had warmed up to Chachu’s styling of Zaid miyan’s hiar. 

“Does he need a hair cut?” Asad asked Zoya suddenly. “I don’t want anyone mistaking him for a girl with his hair this long.” 

“Huh?” Zoya looked at him blankly at the change in subject. She blew out her breath. Jahanpanah was very particular about his hair regimen. Every five weeks he had a standing appointment for a cut. Come hell or high water, on day 35 he was in the salon chair. 

How soon before Zaid was regimented into that?

“Please, it’s not long at all,” she huffed. “Let them think whatever they want to think. Ayaan has longish hair and no one mistakes him for a girl.” She giggled at the image. “Zaid’s just following in his favorite Chachu’s footsteps.” 

Zoya looked at a frowning Asad. The mischief-maker in her elbowed her—hard. “In fact, may be you can start growing out your hair? Try a new style … even wear a pony tail?”

“What! Are you crazy?” Asad’s eyes popped so far out of their sockets that they were in danger of detaching themselves and rolling off; marbles skittering across a floor. 

Zaid woke up and blinked at his dad. He turned to see his mom shrieking with laughter and rolling on the bed. 

What happened? He looked from one parent’s face to the other. Tell meeeee! 

“Incredibly foolish,” his Abbu muttered and started to rock him.

“Is it?” Zoya pouted prettily. “Is it that incredibly foolish? May be if your hair was longer I could get a good grip on it.” She batted her lashes at him.

“Why would you need to get a good grip on it?” Asad asked, distracted. Zaid was just beginning to doze. 

Oh god. Jahanpanah could be incredibly and foolishly dense at times. Ammi’s right. He does need things spelled out for him. 

Zoya rose on her knees and grabbed his head—no, the other one. She ran her fingers through his hair before snatching a tuft in her fist and making his neck arch. 

“Ow!” he growled.

Dobby bolted under the bed. They already had a baby. Did they need to keep playing that baby-making game all the time? Hmmmphhf! Humans should be like cats. Make many babies at one go. 

“So that I can hold on to it when you make me come. Sheesh, get a clue, Mr. Khan!” 

Asad’s eyes glittered in speculation. He rose to place a sleeping Zaid in his crib and co*cked his head to the side when he turned back to her. “Fine, I’ll schedule my cuts every 6 weeks from now.” 

Dobby peeked his head from under the bed. Was it safe to come out now? 

“Wow, Jahanpanah, you’d do that for me? Iss kaneez ke liye itni badi qurbaani denge aap? That’s so MA of you! I’ll be sure to remember that this Thanksgiving!” 

 

Yes Thanksgiving. In a corner of Bhopal this American holiday had made a boisterous migration. And why not. Columbus had set out seeking India after all … and four of the Khan kids had ended up with American humsafars.

It was only right. 

Last year it had been just a token celebration and on a much smaller scale. They were still being hunted. But this year it would be grander—they had so much to be thankful for after all! 

The food would be more Indian than American though.

Roasted tandoori chickens instead of the turkey centerpiece, chutneys and achars instead of cranberry sauce, and pao bhaji instead of mashed potatoes. Biryani and kababs too along with many sabzis and saalans to make it a desi feast. But Ayaan had become better at his apple pie so they’d have that for sure, and gajar ka halwa and kheer would be good substitutes for pumpkin pie, right? 

 

Zoya gave Asad a card on Thankgiving day.

“Because I won’t be able to say all this in front of everyone,” she said when he looked at her in askance. “If I do, I might start crying.”

She wanted them all to do Thanksgiving the American way: go around the table and say what you were thankful for this year.

He pulled her into his lap before opening the card to read it. 

“It’s from a song,” she told him when he read the hand-written opening lines: 

     “Tum jo aaye, zindagi mein baat ban gayi,

     Ishq mazhab, ishq meri zaat ban gayi.”

Asad nodded. He felt the same way. He read and smiled through the long list of all the things she was thankful for. It began with his name and ended with Zaid’s.

     “I’m thankful for our fights that brought us closer.

     For you always being there to catch me and hold me before I fell.

     For the shooting stars that wrote our destiny.

     For when you said ‘qubool nahin hai,’ for me.

     For giving me a second life in Mangalpur.” 


Asad’s grip tightened on her. “Please, never ever bring up that first time in Mangalpur,” he’d told her a thousand times. “I nearly lost you.”

But he should’ve known. She rarely ever listened to him. It was a Zoya thing. 

He continued reading the thanksgiving list. 


     “For saying qubool hai on our wedding day.

     For our bhaang raat and suhaag raat.

     And Chand raats since.”

 

     “For the best honeymoon a girl could ask for and the Palace on Wheels.

     For helping me find my Abbu.

     For every gift and surprise you’ve given me.

     For always being by my side and supporting almost every crazy ass idea of mine."

He grinned reading that. Yeah, some of those ideas ... 

     "For the breakfasts in bed.

     The multiple org*asms.

     For kissing me goodnight and being there when I open my eyes in the morning.

     For all those notes and postcards.

     For Rumi, Ghalib and Faiz."


     "For those micro-mini smiles.

     For being my se*xiest Jahanpanah six packs.

     For being my astronaut on call who routinely gets me the stars and the moon.

     For being my warrior and Jahanpanah Bond and Batman—my ultimate super hero.” 


Asad squeezed her to him. He cleared his throat. “Do you know what I’m most thankful for?” 

“What?” Zoya whispered already feeling emotional. 

“For you standing up to me," he thumbed her nose. "Nose to nose, and not backing down even for a minute. For showing me how wrong I was." She tried to protest but he covered her lips with a finger. "For mocking me, for standing up for my family even when I was blinded by anger or …” 

She covered his mouth. “Shh, don’t bring up all that stuff from the past!” 

He kissed her hand. “I have to. That’s how we got here. I’m so grateful to you for being you. For being gentle and pure, and crazy and true. And so goddamn stubborn. For teaching me how to smile … and laugh—because before you, I didn't know how. For being my lifeline and my Wonder Woman. And my Jhansi ki Rani” 

“Ooh, we haven’t played Wonder Woman and Batman in a while! Let’s do it tonight! I can even fit into my mini-skirt now.”

Asad laughed and kissed her hard. “Yes, I’m thankful for exactly that—that you can make me feel like a kid again and still turn me on with talk about playing superheroes. And Zoya?”

She looked at him. “Hmm?” 

“I might regret saying this but I’m also thankful for that nutty shayari!” 

“Mr. Khan! It’s NOT nutty! You take that back!” 

He ignored her outrage. “For the ruhani sukoon and all the dil ka chain you brought into my life."

She gasped. "Where did that come from?"

"What? Can't I be thankful for the first sher you ever recited in my honor?"

Zoya nuzzled the skin below his ear. Goosebumps flared up. 

"Some of them were classics," his voice cracked. 

She nibbled on his ear this time,"which ones?"

"There was one about 'humsafar na baniye, humein akele ki aadat hai; zubaan ko mishri na banaiye, humein karele ki aadat hai!' "

Zoya laughed with pleasure. "You remembered?"

"Umm hmm."

"What else do you remember?"

"There was some silly one about 'toot jayega dil mera aur soul hogi hurt' and 'something, something, silo your shirt.' "

"Hey!"

"But there was an incredibly sweet one about, 'aapki hansi ne odha hai gham ka libaas, jab Pankaj nam nahi hai apka, toh kyun hain udaas?"

"Aww, you didn't find that incredibly foolish?"

Asad dropped a kiss on her head. "No! Never. You were trying to make me smile and forget … "

"Mr. Khan, what's with you? Have you been re-reading chapter and verse of the Zoya-Asad love story?"

He smiled. He kind of had been. 

Asad kissed her. "And I’m thankful for the way you call me, ‘Mr. Khan’ when we’re in company or when you’re mad, and ‘Asad’ when we’re by ourselves. I love being your Jahanpanah and Akdu even though I hated it the first time you called me those names.” 

“Really? You hated it? I’ve always loved it!” 

“Of course. But I’m saying that I’m thankful for all of our messy and intense history together,” Asad added. 

“And our chemistry?”

He grinned. “That too. I’m more than grateful for our chemistry—the way my geography fits your biology,” Asad ground himself against her.

"Aww Jahanpanah, you just might get lucky tonight for saying that you're a fan of my poetry."

Asad gulped. She ran a finger down his chin and throat. "Is that a happy gulp or are you getting ready to deny that?"

He snorted, "toot jayega dil mera, aur soul bhi hogi hurt—" 

Zoya’s peal of laughter made him laugh too. They’d proceeded to test some laws of physics.

Dobby sighed and settled in a corner to lick his paw. 

 

“Make sure you’re on time,” she told him for the fifth time. He was going to take off early from work to join them for the festivities. 

“Why isn’t Thanksgiving dinner at dinner time,” the Indians had wanted to know. 

“Well in America everyone has dinner early. And Thanksgiving dinner is even earlier! Think of it as a late lunch.” 

“But why?” 

“Because after that you roll around in a food coma, watch football, or plan for Black Friday.” 

“What’s Black Friday? I thought there was only Good Friday.”

“Black Friday is the day of crazy sales and the start of Christmas shopping.” 

“So why’s Thanksgiving on a Thursday?” 

The questions went on and on. Many of them were from Nikhat. Awwn. She was nervous about leaving for the US.

 

They’d had their you’ve-got-to-be-a-Jhansi-ki-Rani talk with her too—sat her down, given her a folder full of warrior tools and weapons. "We'll pray every day that you don't ever need this back-up plan, but we'll make sure that you have everything you need and that no one messes with a hair on your head."

And she’d been just as upset as Najma. 

 

Najma had sent them her Green Card and new driver’s license pictures. To pacify a distraught Nikhat, Zoya had shown her those images.

Only then had Nikhat calmed down. 

They’d included Ayaan in their talk with her too this time.

“Bhai is that the real reason you did that trust fund thing for the girls? You’re worried about the possibility of a talaaq?” A somber Ayaan had asked Asad later. “But Feroze and Omar are great guys. They’d never—” 

Asad exhaled. He hated the sound of that word. That word had changed their lives as kids. That word had almost come between him and Zoya.

And Zaid.

He looked up at the night sky and sent up a silent dua for not saying that terrible word a third time. Thank you, Allah miyan.

And thank you for sending Dobby … and Aunty … and for all the agents of justice and angels of mercy that had made this day possible. 

This Thanksgiving was truly blessed. He'd come to like this American holiday. 

“And also the reason why I did it for Humaira and Zoya,” Asad reminded his brother quietly.

“What? But you! Me?” 

“I almost said it Ayaan.”

“I know! But that was completely different!” 

“Still. It could’ve changed our lives forever. Can you imagine if—” He cleared his clogged throat. “If Zoya had left for New York? Zaid not being here, with us?” 

Asad shuddered. The nightmares were long gone.

But many a night, for months, he’d wake up sweating and breathing hard. He’d feel around for Zoya’s hand and grab for a lifeline—he had to restrain himself from squeezing too hard. He didn’t want to wake her up and see him this upset. 

And then when Zaid came, he’d wake up at odd hours and check his breathing—sliding his finger under the tiny nose or placing his hand on the little chest that rose and fell. He still recited Allah’s name over his son’s head when he couldn’t sleep. 

Those months right after the terrors at the factory had been hard even after he and Zoya had reconciled. Sometimes his mind played crazy “what if” games with him. What if he’d said the word three times instead of two? What if Zoya had left him? What if he never saw Zaid? 

No! 

Then his mind would torment him with “even if” games. Even if that had happened he’d have just relocated to New York to be close to them. He’d take Ammi with him. And Najma would be in the US too. It would all be OK, they’d work it out somehow. 

Even if … 

Yes, it would mean that he and Zoya could never be together (because he’d never in a million years ask her to go through a Halala nikaah. He’d die first. Or kill any man who tried to touch her.) 

He’d just be happy enough to see her. And see Zaid grow up. He wouldn’t dream of separating Zaid from Zoya. No custody battles, no nothing.

Even if the unthinkable had happened … 

He’d go down on his knees and beg Zoya if she’d have him; he’d live with her in sin for the rest of their lives if she said qubool hai. 

Ayaan watched Asad wrestle with unseen demons. He saw his brother’s fists whiten on the balcony railing as he gazed, unseeing, into the heart of darkness.

He gripped Asad’s shoulder, “Bhai, I’m sorry for bringing up those awful memories. I wasn’t thinking straight. I was just shocked by how far you guys had thought things through to make it right for the girls. I can’t imagine what it must have been like …” 

Asad sighed and shook his head to clear it. That abyss was haunting and hypnotic—he struggled to drag himself up from it. He couldn't explain it to Ayaan. May be Zoya understood this a little better: If only someone had thought to do this for their mothers …  

“But I understand now,” Ayaan went on. “You did all this because of what happened then ... because of what that bi*tch forced you to do.”

Ayaan smacked his forehead. Idiot! Did he have to say that? He felt a lump rise in his throat. He had never realized that both Mona and Bhaijaan must’ve relived the horror of that word days and months after it had ricocheted in the factory. A stray bullet would have done less damage.

And it hit Ayaan for the first time with the force of a sledgehammer: all these things that Bhai had done since then—talking to Dadi and the girls at the hospital and insisting on telling them of their parents' dark history, the trust funds for the girls, the file on American legal and women's centers … It was all to make up for those moments of stark helplessness in the factory when he could do nothing to save his imploding universe. For a man as strong as Bhaijaan to have to beg on his knees and fall apart—-

And if a guy like him could be broken then what chance did the girls have if something happened? Ayaan reeled from this realization. He prayed that they'd never find themselves so defenseless ever again. 

Ayaan scrubbed the tears from his eyes. “Bhai, I swear to god, I wouldn’t have let anything bad happen to you both. Or to Zaid! We were in the right. She was wrong. Allah wouldn’t have let her win. And Allah wouldn't have put you and Zoya through hell. Together we would have turned back time to undo …”

Asad turned and pulled him into a bear hug.

He knew what Ayaan was trying to say and not say. All grains of hope had seemed to slip through his powerless fingers that day. But deep down he knew that he’d have said that word a third time if the tables hadn’t turned on that terrible day. There was a gun to Zoya's head … and Zai—No! If it would’ve saved Zoya’s and Zaid’s lives, he’d have said it a hundred times. He’d do it again and again. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

They heard a shout and squeals coming from inside.

“Mr. Khan!” Zoya’s call was the loudest. Ayaan grinned through tears as he saw Bhai dash inside. Wiping his eyes and offering a prayer of his own he went in to check out what the ruckus was all about.

So much giddy chatter despite the food coma. So many cameras held aloft and clicking and filming. 

Of course.

He should have known. Zaid miyan had to be at the center of the commotion. There he was beaming up at his minions and paparazzi … sitting upright. Unsupported.

He prattled away, arms flapping in royal appreciation of the adoration. Pick me up, he begged. He flung his arms about more. 

Ayaan blinked.

Then he shrieked. “Hey, Champ! You’re sitting up on your own? All by yourself? Shabash mera cheetah! Now give me five!” 

Zaid lifted his arm to high-five Chachu’s palm, swayed, and nearly toppled. A million arms reached out to right him and cradle his head if he fell backwards.

But his Abbu got to him first.

Asad swept him up in his arms and buried his face in his son’s neck. Zaid giggled and squirmed. Abbu’s stubble was tickly and scratchy. But Abbu wouldn’t let go. 

Zoya looked at Asad, puzzled by his emotional response. She turned to look at Ayaan and arched an eyebrow. What’s up? What’ve you done to my Akdu?

Her fists climbed up her hips; her eyes slitted: Is everything OK? What’re you hiding? Something’s wrong, right? Tell meeEEE! NOW!

Ayaan raised his hands in self-defense. “Hey, he’s happy his son can sit up, OK? Jeez, stop with the Spanish Inquisition!” 

Zoya made a face at him. She’d get to the bottom of it all right. She always did. She’d ask Asad and get the details when they went to the hilltop tonight. It would be their first time taking Zaid with them. They would connect the stars and rock the moon in the palm of their hands. 

But meanwhile she had pictures to take of her Jahanpanah and their munchkin shehzada. 

Aapi and Jeeju would be so thrilled. And Najma and Omar too. And then she had to update the Baby book. Another milestone crossed. Oh my god, Allah miyan, he’s growing up so fast!



Song in Title:

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007): "Jhoom Barabar Jhoom"






Dec 29, 2015

Chakh Le, Haan Chakh Le, Yeh Raat Shahad Hai Chakh Le (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 26 times)

Chapter 122

 

“Ouch, Zaaaaid!”

Asad came peeling out of the bathroom, face half-shaven. This squeak of hers had been particularly loud. “Are you OK?” he asked Zoya.

“No! He’s biting even more while nursing. My nipples are sore.”

Asad gulped.

“Umm …” He really had no solution to offer. But just the mention of the word was turning him on.

Down, boy. 

Ever since Zaid had begun teething he’d been munching on everything he could latch on to. 

Of course the mom brigade had swooped down on her to prescribe remedies and relief. Raziya and Shireen offered expert tips: pull baby in closer so it’s hard to breathe and they’ll let go, slide your finger in and massage the gums, stop feeding each time they try, pinch the nose, and so on.

Dilshad would rub Zaid’s gums with ghee and butter for several minutes before feeding. He’d bite her too sometimes. 

“Allah! Kha jayega Dadi ko?” 

He’d gurgle and proceed to chomp some more. 

Zoya would shake her head at the loving and super-indulgent tone Dilshad used. This was not a scolding; it was grandmotherly pride and affirmation of his monumental achievement. At this rate Zaid must think that his Dadi was saying: shabash, mera cheetah! Do it again! 

Dadu too eagerly offered his own finger and knuckle to chew on not minding his grandson’s cannibalism the least bit—another proud grandparent willing to sacrifice themselves to Zaid’s growth spurts. Because if their jigar ka tukda was in such pain, how could they not share it too?

Nanu had bought up boxes full of teething toys which were now clogging the freezer. Zaid would get to suck on these when his gums were swollen and causing discomfort. In the meanwhile he chewed on everything he could grab in his little paws. Mom was the obvious collateral damage. 

Asad picked up Zaid from her arms. But he put down the razor first—a safe distance away from his son’s reaching hands. 

“Zaid,” he looked deep into the boy’s eyes. “No biting!” 

“MMMmbbbAAAaaahhhh!” Zaid twisted and churned at being disturbed. Lemme go! Ammi! 

Asad placed him in his crib on a time out. Zaid protested. Loudly. He was so hungry. Hangry, in fact. The face scrunched up and he pulled out his greatest ammunition yet: a gush of tears and a trembling lower lip. It always worked. 

“Aww …” his mom melted and grabbed him up.

Asad rolled his eyes. “If you want to teach him then be consistent with the punishment.”

“Mr. Khan! Stop being so Akdu. Ow!” she tried to squelch a cry again.

Asad had picked up his razor and turned to go back to the bathroom. He put it down again and wiped his hand on the towel over his waist. Then he brought two cushions over from the settee to place them under a feeding Zaid. 

“Remember that article said that you have to elevate the the baby so his weight won’t drag down on your … umm …” He cleared his throat. “ Your, voh … actually—” 

“Oh god, Asad. Just say it. Just say the word. Nipple!”

He blushed. But then he saw her wince in pain again and reached for Zaid’s mouth to slide his finger in. Detaching Zaid he lifted him again and frowned into his son’s face: “Zaid, I said no biting! You’re hurting Ammi.” 

And he replaced him in the crib. Zaid’s eyes squeezed tight and the little face crumpled again.

This time when the waterworks re-started Asad held Zoya back and glared at her. “Will I have to take the day off to make sure you’re both behaving yourselves?” 

She pouted and teared up seeing Zaid sit up and shake the crib rails. His back was arching and he was in full-blown tantrum mode. Fat tears were rolling down that face. 

“Asad, let me go, he needs me!” 

“He needs to figure out that it’s not right to bite his Ammi.” 

They watched Zaid flop on his back and thrash his arms and legs. The angry cries ratcheted up more. Even Asad couldn’t bear it. He lifted Zaid out and reminded him once more: “no biting, OK?” 

Zaid stopped hollering and squirmed to be with his mom. 

Asad handed him back to Zoya. 

He watched mother and son quickly resettle into their rhythm. He smiled shaking his head when saw Zoya’s face. “Stop pretending that it doesn’t hurt just because you think I’m going to be the bad cop.” 

“No, he’s not doing it now.” But she squeezed her eyes shut and gasped. 

Asad knelt before her and grabbed Zaid’s hand to gently nip his son’s finger with his teeth. It wasn’t painful but it got his son’s attention.

Zaid looked up with rounded eyes and mouth.

Wuuuut? Who did that!

He saw his dad’s face looming over his.

Why was Abbu being so mean today? His mom was right to call him Akdu. Akdu Abbu! Akdu Abbu!

Zaid glared at his dad.

He went back to nursing in his mom’s snug embrace. Ammi was the best. 

Zoya hissed a couple of minutes later and Asad nipped Zaid’s finger again. And again. This happened a few more times until Zaid got the message: Each time his gums itched or hurt and he mashed down on them, Ammi jerked and made a sound and then Akdu Abbu ate his finger. 

He didn’t like this. There was only one way to make Abbu stop. And he was so going to tell Dadi about it. 

“See?” Asad said a few minutes later still watching her face. “Much better. Let’s hope he remembers. And if he doesn’t, then do what I did.”

“Bite my son, you mean? Allah miyan, what’s wrong with you, Mr. Khan?” she hissed.

“Babe, you’re sore. Is it so bad that I don’t want you to be in pain?” 

“No …” 

“Good. Then do as I say!”

“Jee, Jahanpanah,” she sassed behind his back and made a face. 

 

He had to reapply the shaving lather because the previous one had crusted thanks to his conflict-resolution services being needed elsewhere.

He turned when the door opened and Zoya walked in.

“Zaid, OK?” Asad asked, face angled as he began shaving. 

“He’s with Ammi and biting her fingers. Obviously it’s hereditary.” 

Razor raised, he looked at her, head tilted to the side. “And?”

She blushed. “Umm … since you’re such an expert coach and problem-solver, I thought you’d have a Jahanpanah-made remedy to relieve the soreness …” she moved closer, unbuttoning her shirt. “In my nipples.”

Asad groaned. 

Her shirt and bra fell to the marble floor. Asad couldn’t take his eyes off her bre*asts. Shaving would obviously have to wait. He hooked his finger into her jeans waistband and dragged her closer. His hands cupped and lifted those delectable bre*asts higher. He bent his head to swirl and lave the tips with his tongue. 

Her head fell back; she hissed and half-moaned, fingers spasming on his biceps. 

“Does it hurt?”

“A little.” Her fingers slid through his hair as her back arched in heated response. “Do it again.”

He did. He tried a tentative suck and she quivered. He lifted her up to place her at the counter. Asad ran the cold water faucet. And taking a handful of water he dribbled it over her bre*asts. The cool water soothed the burn. When he took a nipple in his mouth and fluttered his tongue over it she forgot the soreness and reveled in the burn.

“Asad!” 

Her legs squeezed him to her and her grip on his hair tightened. Asad released her bre*ast and as she got ready to protest she felt him blow gently on her nipples. Oh god, that felt so good! He splashed more cold water on her and then blew again. 

Before retaking a nipple in his mouth he whispered hoarsely, “come back tonight and Dr. Asad Ahmed Khan will apply ice to the sore areas and give you a deep tissue massage.” 

She thrashed under him. “No!” 

He lifted his head. His eyes looked drugged, “no?” 

“Can it be ice cream instead?” 

“Mmmm, exactly what the doctor ordered,” he muttered and continued to feast on her. 

Unwrapping her legs from his hips Zoya tugged at the black towel at his waist; it fell to the floor. 

So he would be late. But his healing powers were needed here. Zoya hopped off the counter to slither out of her jeans.

“Take me right now,” his wife commanded. 

“Jo hukum, Mrs. Jahanpanah.” Asad leaned his butt against the counter and lifted her up to straddle him. 

As he nudged and brushed against her entrance, their heat-seeking bodies clung; she dug her nails into his shoulders craving his slick homing in, “hurry!” 

Zoya bit him when Asad dared to chuckle at her impatience. 

Her eyes drooped when he entered her but then she saw her reflection in the mirror behind him. He pulled out and she mewled in protest. As he buried himself deeper, Zoya’s eyes widened at the expression of raw abandon on her face. She watched herself buck and writhe in the mirror as Asad held her by her waist and jackhammered into her. The muscles in his shoulders and neck flexed; they corded. She watched, hypnotized.

Yes … yes, she wanted it like this right now … fast, rough and … wild … Her arms wrapped around his neck to anchor herself as she started to fragment … dissolve.

She couldn’t look at herself then. She couldn’t bear to.

His hands kneaded her butt to rock—- 

“Oh god, oh god, oh god—-!” 

His mouth covered hers to swallow her scream.

When she opened her eyes to look at herself over his shoulder she saw what Asad often said afterwards: “your eyes, oh god, those … f*uck-me again bedroom eyes!” 

They were hooded … her eyes looked as if they’d roll to the back of her head in a swoon any second now ... Her face glowed in the stillness, a telltale marker of their synced blood rush … or may be from the whisker burn of Asad’s unshaven face.

She blushed.

 

It was Sunday morning.

Zaid miyan worked on his frozen teething toy with a vengeance. It made his fingers cold and numb but it felt so good on his gums.

He liked it in the car.

He could see trees, buldings and buses go by saying hi and bye. At the red light a nice girl on the back of a bike waggled and waved her fingers at him. He grinned and covered his eyes when she blew him a kiss. 

The same redbox building flew by. Oh, they were going to Chhoti Nani’s house. He wiggled and thrashed in his car seat. Hurry, he wanted to tell his Abbu. But Dobby came up to sniff his face. The baby cooed.

Dadi pushed him away. “Hatt, Dobby!” 

Dobby ignored her and set up camp in Zaid’s lap. Zaid giggled. With his free hand he tried to push the cat off. 

Zoya turned around to watch him from the front seat. She winked at her son and he tried to do the same. He blinked both his eyes.

“Awesome! Good job, Zaid,” his mom said as she clapped for him. 

“What’d he do,” Asad asked.

“He’s trying to wink but does it with both eyes shut.” 

“Please. Are you trying to teach my son how to wink? Do you want him to grow up and be beaten up by girls and their brothers or fathers?”

Dilshad chuckled. Koi haath laga ke dekhe mere bachche ko!

“Mr. Khan! If he winks at other girls I’ll beat him up first! He’s only allowed to wink at his mama, hai na, baby?” she looked back at Zaid who was now looking out of the window. They were stopped at a red light again and Zaid flapped his arms at a little boy at his door. Balloons!

“Mr. Khan, hurry! Buy up all his balloons.” 

Asad rolled his eyes. Of course she hadn’t got her wallet with her. That sequined purse was barely large enough to hold her phone. Which was probably not even charged. He threw his wallet at her and with Dilshad’s help Zoya managed to get the balloons in the car a second before the light turned green.

“Aww, the girls will love these,” Zoya mused. She meant Humaira, Nuzzhat and Dadi. 

Zaid batted at them. Dobby tried it too. Dilshad grabbed his paw before he burst one and scared Zaid. 

“Ammi, you know what the surprise is, right?” Zoya asked Dilshad for the hundredth time since that morning. 

Dilshad’s smug smile didn’t budge. Of course she knew.

“Tell me, na! Please, please, PLEASE!”

Dilshad sighed. “You’ll find out in two minutes. Sabra karo beta.”

Zoya smacked Asad’s arm when he snorted. Sabra, and his wife? Incredibly foolish. 

She glared at him. “If even you know what the surpise is, then I’m not talking to anyone today!” 

“No, I don’t know what the surpise is. I’m just as much in the dark as you are. But I do know how to be patient,” he teased. 

Zoya pouted. Allah miyan, what’s wrong with everybody!

“Dress up. No jeans today!” was all that Humaira had told her. “Aapi, behave OK,” she’d added when Zoya had begged, cajoled and threatened to know why. 

“Dress up Zaid miyan too in that sherwani and topi that Ammi gave him. The blue one, OK? He’s the guest of honor after all.” 

“But he looks like a dork in a topi,” she’d complained, momentarily forgetting about the guest of honor tidbit of information. 

“Aapi, how can you say that! You're so mean! He’s adorbs, topi or no topi.” 



When they reached the driveway of the Siddiqui House everyone was already out. A dhol wala? Why? What was going on?

As Asad held an animated Zaid in his arms, Ayaan, Humaira and Nuzzhat dragged them out and danced in circles around them as the dhol played that familiar hypnotic beat. Zaid clapped. His Chhoti Nani came up to apply kala teeka behind his ear. He lunged to be in her arms. 

“Aa ja, mera bachcha,” she crooned taking him in her eager arms. 

Raziya laughed at Zoya along with Dilshad. For someone who was dying to know about the secret and surprise, she had very quickly forgotten her non-stop questions as she danced away. They all knew how much she loved the dhol. She grabbed Asad’s hand and held it high as she twirled under it. He was forced to sway to the live music as she danced around him. Index fingers raised, shoulders lifting to the bhangra beat they let loose. Ayaan made Zaid point his fingers to the sky and danced with him. 

Such fun! But Zoya still had no clue about the surprise as she led Dadi out and made her pirouette and dance. 

Some time later a breathless Dadi fanning herself announced, “ab bas! Let’s go inside.”

“And get this party started,” Ayaan whooped. 

“What party?” Zoya asked. 

“Brunch party!” Nuzzhat stated in a hushed tone to prolong the suspense. 

“But why?!!!” Zoya cried in frustration. She stomped her foot and everyone turned to look at her. 

They may as well tell her now, or her sister knew that Zoya was this close to exploding from angry curiosity. 

Humaira had grabbed up Zaid in her arms now. “To celebrate Zaid miyan’s first bite of solid food!” she announced. 

She pointed at the dining table. It was elaborately staged with flowers, gifts, fruits, snacks, and colorful tableware. Zoya saw Ayaan attaching the bunch of balloons to the back of a brand new high chair at the head of the table.

“What? But I thought we don’t do anything special for this.”

They had been discussing feeding Zaid solids for weeks now. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone wanted to do it first. 

“So, we’re starting a new tradition!” Humaira declared as she secured Zaid in the seat of honor. He beat his palms on the tray tabletop. This was new. But why was everything pretty and interesting so far away from his fingers. He tried to reach a gaily-wrapped package. 

Zoya lovingly touched the brand new high chair. She looked at her father who was beaming. Aww, he was wearing the muffler she’d knit for him!

“Abbu, did you make this?” 

“Me and Rashid worked on it. The girls helped with the staining. Look closely, they’ve all carved their names on it. Even Nikhat.” 

Asad came over to trace her name on the tray table in front of Zaid. Nikhat too had left to start a new life in the US. And they all missed her terribly. Zaid caught his dad’s finger and tried to gnaw on it. Asad dodged the payback and nudged his son’s cheek with a knuckle. Ayaan meanwhile snatched his nephew’s fist and pretended to eat it up while making chomping sounds.

Zaid snickered.

Humaira watched them play, very satisfied with her plans.

She lifted Zaid out of his chair and deposited him in Rashid’s arms. One of the reasons why she and Dadi had ganged up and organized this little celebration was because she wanted to cheer up Shireen and Rashid. Her mother and father-in-law had gone dead quiet in Nikhat’s absence. 

Humaira also felt guilty on some days. She got to stay close to her parents, see them everyday, live within touching distance, but Nikhat and Najma were flung so far away from them. Oceans and continents and time zones lay between them now. And soon Nuzzhat would be off too. 

“Bahut na-insafi hai,” Shireen had complained just yesterday. “Why do daughters have to go so far away from their parents? Kisne banaya aisa bakwas rivaaz?”

Rashid had nodded. This was not a custom he was fond of either. Siddiqui Saheb was lucky to have both his girls close by. But thank goodness his girls had married into loving and caring families. What else could a father hope for? When he thought of what could’ve happened—with Nikhat married to that snake, Imran—?

Shukranallah! 

Faiz had shared Nikhat’s homecoming video with them. The reunion at the airport, the hugs, the flowers, the laughter … the teasing … blushing ...

There was snow!

Nikhat’s eyes had lit up in wonder—a thousand lamps couldn’t have been brighter. Rashid had loved to see his daughter’s shy smile as Feroze refused to let go of her hand. His son-in-law had kissed Nikhat’s hand openly in front of everyone several times ...

“Hamare zamaane mein aisa nahin tha,” Dadi said wistfully. They had already watched the video more than a dozen times. 

Rashid looked at Zaid who was babbling away in his arms. That scr*ap of sunshine warmed his heart every bit more; those twinkly eyes banished the remaining wintry gloom. And why was Dadu moping anyways? He had just talked to Nikhat and Feroze, and of course, Naz. 

“We’re having a reception for these two, end of next month. I’ve given you all enough notice—you have to come! We’ll have Sangeet, Mehendi, DJ and everything!” Naz had commanded. “I’ll send rest of the info. You guys start looking for tickets. I’ll be the super-evil TV saas otherwise!”

Nikhat’s voice full of merry glee tinkled in his head.

Rashid thanked their lucky stars yet again. His gentle girl deserved a playful saas like Naz who just happened to love Indian dramas, not the stereotypical saas in those shows like Haseena Bi. They were blessed to be rid of all those villains. So what if Nikhat and Najma were a world away; they were happy and loved. 

“See, all iz well,” Ayaan said afterwards. And so it was, now that he held Zaid in his arms and gazed into those bright eyes. Asad laughed and tossed his head like that as a baby too. Rashid laughed, not realizing that his son and grandson got that signature toss from him. He felt light; he felt alive.

“Abbu, give him to me,” said Nuzzhat at his elbow.

“No! I barely got a minute with him,” he complained. Rashid had seen Zoya sing the “head, shoulders, knees and toes” song to Zaid many times before. He was just getting ready to try his hand at that.

“No, Zaid’s job is done here. It’s time for him to cheer up Ammi now.”

Rashid surrendered his pint-sized therapist. Very reluctantly. He’d have to get in line for the next appointment. 



After his healing duties were done, Zaid was replaced in his high-chair. About time too. He was so hungry. If Dobby knew about the chuhas in his tummy … 

He was served in a silver bowl with a silver spoon. Chhoti Nani, at Badi Dadi’s instructions, had mashed up the dates wali kheer. 

Of course there had been great debates and discussions about who would feed him first. 

“It should be Dadi,” Nuzzhat had declared very seriously. “She’s the one who gave Asad Bhaijaan and Ayaan Bhaijaan their first bites.” She said it as if she’d been an eye witness.

Dadi had nodded with pleasure. But then she’d shown why she was everyone’s bestest Dadi.

“I’ve had my turn. Let Dilshad be the first one to feed her grandson.” 

And so Zaid’s Dadi got to do the honors. 

He beat his palms on the table in excitement. Something big was happening. He knew it in his tiny gut. He was wearing a brand new bib that his Najma Phuphi and Omar Phupha had sent. It said, “I’m a Jedi like my mother before me.”

Zaid tried to snatch the bib off. Why was his tie so much wider than Abbu’s? 

When Dadi moved the spoon to his mouth Zaid gripped her hand and shook it. Hurry! What's taking so long? Some of the white stuff fell and his Abbu squeaked before rushing to wipe it up. 

Everyone was watching. He was used to having so many cameras aimed at him. Zaid clapped looking up into Asad's face. They were back to being best buds again. Dilshad popped a bit of kheer into his unsuspecting mouth. Zaid's eyes widened at this new taste and texture. His pink tongue darted out to lick up the treat. And everyone cheered and clapped. 

“Mmmmmmmm dddAaaaaaaahhhhh”

It was official. The baby loved his first bite. He loved it even more when everyone gave him a bit one by one. Ammi did it, then Abbu. Chachu, Khala, Nanu, Badi Dadi, Phuphi, Dadu, Chhoti Dadi. And they all settled  down to enjoy the feast in his honor. 

There was a repeat telecast of the peanut allergies wala discussion. Would Zaid too be allergic like his daddy? How should they find out? Should they even try? What if he had a deadly react—?

Na baba. We’ll try it when he’s older. 

Chhoti Nani was the last to feed him. She was trying to mop up her tears in her dupatta. “Kitna bada ho gaya mera sher,” she said like a million times.

Zaid agreed. He was a big boy now. He even had his own tie like Abbu. 

“Later, I’ll do your ghee and badam maalish and Nanu will read—” Chhoti Nani was crooning to him as she fed him tiny spoonfuls. 

“No!” His mom shrieked suddenly. 

Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at Zoya. 

“Umm, I think my nose might be allergic to the ghee-badam maalish,” she said guiltily.

“Hmmmph!” Chhoti Nani said. She turned back to Zaid. “And after the maalish, together we’ll kheencho your Ammi’s choti!” 

Zoya couldn’t resist.

“Dieting karaiye akal ko, akal hui hai moti,

Dieting karaiye akal ko, akal hui hai moti,

How will you kheencho that, when there is no choti!" 

“Baaaahhhbbaaaddaa,” Zaid agreed. But was he agreeing with his Chhoti Nani or his mom?

 

Zoya rubbed her palms together. Finally, she had the time to do what she’d really wanted to do. Find out what the hell was going on with Asad at work. She re-checked her mental list: Preoccupied when at home. Clipped conversations over the phone as he walked away from them for more privacy. Coming home even later everyday now. Being crazy stressed for the last couple of weeks. More phone calls late into the night. Grim lines around his mouth and the return of the perpetual frown.

“Mr. Khan, have you heard about something called work-life balance?” she’d asked one frustrated night snatching his laptop from his hands.

He’d shrugged and gone back to his brooding. 

But Asad’s dour mood had never deterred her in the past, why would it be any different now? In fact he’d become an interesting research subject once again. She had misdiagnosed him a long time ago—trying to convince Phuphi and Najma that Mr. Khan was in love with Elena from New York. He’d huffed and puffed like a surly dragon then. Did that deter her then? Nope, not at all. So what if she was wrong? Thank god she was wrong!

So she tried to ply him with relaxing chamomile or green tea which he spluttered at in disgust. Her research on relaxing foods had told her to add honey so she did. He’d made faces and stuck with his black and bitter coffee.

Still she didn’t give up.

She found new ways to break his pensiveness. Zoya would pop nuts or dark chocolate into his mouth as he worked at his laptop. At least he didn’t resist this too much. He crunched on them in moody distraction, and sitting by Asad’s feet under the settee, Dobby’s eyes would glisten hoping for a crumb to fall.

“It’ll help you relax,” she would say when Asad swatted her hand away, eyes glued to the screen. 

She harrumphed and kept up her dogged efforts. But looks like Mr. Khan wasn't ready to tell her what was bothering him. As yet. He’d grunted and dodged all her questions with monosyllabic answers once too many times.

And Humaira was pretty much saying the same thing about Ayaan.



Zoya’s spidey senses thrummed in restlessness. Something was up and Jahanpanah was being a super-secretive Bond without her. Allah miyan what’s wrong with him!

She rolled up her sleeves. Jahanpanah, I better not find out you’re having an affair because then you’ll have only the six packs left. 

She knew that wasn’t it though. 

When they made love these days there was a rougher intensity in him. He took her as if he’d been coiled hard all day, craving volatile release and needing to sink into her to empty his mind. He dragged her hair back and marked her wilder; he bruised and bit her harder these days.

His kisses were more teeth than tongue.

Sheesh, between her husband and son, she sure was a sore mess. Gee thanks Jahanpanah, teaching Zaid  not to bite, aur khud—-? 

So yes, basically, Asad was asking for it: he needed an intervention. It was a silent cry for help, Zoya decided. And who better to engineer it?

She brushed an impatient finger under her nose and huffed. Zoya’s hands bunched up at her waist—the signature frown emerged along with its sidekick: the pouty lip.

About time she got to the bottom of this. Not that she minded the rough se*x. It had spiced up her love life some. But Jahanpanah couldn’t be allowed to fly solo. He couldn’t be allowed to turn into that old-timey, dark and angry Vampire Ahmed Khan who went on pissy Akduthons and armageddons.

And of course it was her job to talk him down. Natch. 

She re-bristled at his typical don’t-tell-Zoya-anything protective mode. Didn’t he know what a super detective and crime fighter she was? That she’d do in one what he would do in five days? Motherhood had NOT dulled her spit-fire edge one bit, thank you very much. No way. He better not think she’d gone soft. And, he better not think now that he had the girl wedded and bedded, she’d be the quiet tehzeeb-e-afta homemaker who needed to be kept safe and uninformed.

Na ah. Not her. Not ever. 

Zaid was gainfully employed entertaining his Dadi right now. He was playing the sit up-roll over and be applauded game with her and Dobby. They played that a lot. And there were longer breaks between his feeding schedule now, so she had some time on her hands. She looked down and sucked on her bruised knuckle and then blew on it. Last night she’d banged it against the side table when Asad’d gripped her hands to drag them over her head and—-

He’d pressed her hand hard against the table’s edge and its side had bit into her. He’d been unrelenting; his thrusts fast and strokes furious. She’d flown apart with a wild cry and he’d buried his face in the crook of her neck. His harsh breathing echoed in her ears; his pounding heart ricocheted off her.

Yup. Time to do something about it and find out what was eating her Jahanpanah.

 

Zoya settled down with her iPad in the rocking chair. She flexed her fingers, cracked her knuckles and got to work. The local business news would be first. May be she’d find a hint here and then dig deeper. Thanks to Zaid and the factory launch she really hadn’t been paying attention to current affairs. Had she missed something important? 

Her fingers flew across the screen, madly scrolling up and down. Her frown deepened as she read articles, clicked on links, occasionally googling acronyms, titles or jargon she wasn’t familiar with. She moved on to her laptop and got a spreadsheet going to organize her research. 

This was weird.

Her spidey senses kicked into overdrive. She knew that Asad’s company was testing out greener building technology for their new project—solar power, rain harvesting, waste sorting, reimagined greywater infrastucture and so on. 

Months ago, when she was still pregnant, they’d chatted a lot about it. She’d even researched experts and tons of literature for him. A shy Prasad and another assistant had been her gophers in those days in contacting consultants and contractors, getting estimates and making comps. It looked promising—after all the construction industry was the next biggest carbon emitter after cars, sometimes as much if not more. It made sense to try to be more environmentally responsible. Many cities across the country were innovating their way to urban sustainability. But then why was there a stream of snarky op-eds and gossipy rumor-laced columns about Asad’s firm and their project in the metro busniess news outlets? And why was Asad being painted as an upstart? Why was this being touted as anti-workers’ rights? Anti-environmental even? Please. That was bullsh*it! 

Was this why Asad was so tense these days? 

But he’d never put much stock in rumor. And this wouldn’t have been the first time that he would’ve faced criticism or opposition. Then what was it? What was really happening? 

She looked up the bylines for the stories and began checking the reporters’ bios and credentials. Her web of information started to fan out its tentacles. She filled out and updated her spreadsheet notes. And Zoya was not liking what she was seeing.

 

After dinner he yanked her to him and nibbled on her ear. She knew what was coming. Zoya pushed back at his chest with a firm finger.

Asad looked up at her in surprise. 

“So tell me, Mr. Khan, why is some front group funding a smear campaign against you?”

Asad’s eyes widened. He sighed and unconsciously swept a hand over his creasing forehead. He should have known she wouldn’t be able to resist poking her nose into this. He’d hoped Zaid would have been a suitable distraction from her noticing the bat signal on high alert. 

“How do you—?” 

“Please. And quit stalling. You know I have my ways.”

Asad’s lips curved. Of course she did. So that’s why she was eavesdropping on his phone conversations these days? 

 

But he’d been pretty guarded so how had she—? 

“Asad?”

“It’s nothing you have to worry about. It’s just part of how things are done here. Nothing out of the ordinary about it. I’ll handle it.” 

“Are you serious? ‘Part of how things are done here!’ So you still think of me as an outsider? A foreigner? Someone who doesn’t understand how things are done in India!” 

“Zoya c’mon, stop exaggerating. You know I didn’t mean it like that. But I did mean one thing very seriously: I don’t want you poking around in this, understood?”

“Oh really? So I’m not supposed to know what has you so tense these days? I’m just the wife who’s supposed to sit at home, bear your kids and be your comfort woman—your little fu*ck buddy when you come home late at nights?”

“Zoya!” 

“Don’t you dare ‘Zoya’ me!” Oh man, was she steamed. “I know what you’re getting ready to say—keep your nose out of my business. That’s what ‘I’ll handle it,’ means, doesn’t it? This is so typical of you. Even earlier you would say that I was always interfering in your family or business affairs when I just wanted to help!” 

“Babe, shh,” he pulled her into a tight hug. 

Zoya struggled against him, really mad. He lifted her up and carried her to the settee to hold in his lap. She still stiffly rebuffed all attempts to mollify her.

Asad chuckled and it infuriated her even more. 

“It’s always ‘your business’ at the slightest hint of trouble. You always put up these granite walls that no one’s allowed to breach. I made it very clear, I wasn't going to be a typical Indian wife who has no clue what's going on with her husband's work and—”

On and on she went.

He exhaled patiently. “You think I don’t know your tricks by now? You attack me with over the top accusations so I’ll back down, feel guilty and cave in. Not this time, babe. I’m warning you!”

“Asad!” she growled and tried to claw at him. He wasn’t supposed to react this way, dammit! 

He laughed more. 

OK, so she wasn’t that mad at him. And it was nice to hear him laugh after so long. 

“OK, fine, you’re right. I was going to say that,” Asad tried another tack. 

“Say what?” 

She knew exactly what. But it was another of her tricks and he didn’t know about this one as yet. She made him spell things out for her in black and white, or repeat them. She’d come to realize that saying things again or hearing them out loud always made him rethink his position, see things in a new light even. Or feel embarrassed about what he’d said or almost said.

It was her best trick yet. 

“OK, fine. May be I was going to say: stay out of my business.” 

“Mr. Khan!” She flashed her eyes at him. “Say it, say it that your business is not my business. That what happens to you doesn’t affect me. Just try and say it!” 

When her lower lip threatened to get rounder and heavier he grinned and kissed her. 

“OK, I’m sorry, my Jhansi ki Rani. Ghalati ho gayee. Maaf ker dijiye apne Jahanpanah ko. All my business is your business! Always was and always will be, khush? ”

“Hmm,” she debated with herself whether to be exactly that. She wasn’t one to dwell on grudges or prolong a fight. Besides, curiosity was getting the better of her. And she had never really been mad at him anyways. This is exactly where she wanted him: guilt-ridden, pliable, and willing to share what was bothering him.  

“Only if you tell me everything that’s been going on. From the start,” Zoya wrapped her arms around him. 

Asad grunted in frustration and fell back against the cushions dragging her with him. Hoo boy, Lady Sherlock was in the house, sniffing around like a bloodhound, and there was no saying no to her. “First tell me how you know? Did you talk to Ayaan or Rakesh?” But Rakesh wouldn't say a thing. It would be against his professional ethics. It must be Ayaan for sure. Just wait, I'll do dash mein bumboo to that idiot!

Zoya smacked her head. Moron. She could’ve just bullied and blackmailed Ayaan. He’d have been much easier to break than her Akdu. Thanks to Humaira and her sisters-in-laws, Zoya had the inside track on Ayaan’s monkey business that his Bhaijaan had no clue about. It would have been a piece of cake. She could have spent all her spare time catching up on missed TV shows and social media. Dang, had motherhood really blunted her sharp detective skills? 

“Rakesh knows?” Zoya gripped his hands in alarm. “Asad, how bad is this?”

He stroked her lips with a thumb. “Remember when Ayaan let slip that we were having trouble with a supplier?”

“Yeah, but that was months ago. And I told you to follow your gut.” She’d been in a fog of maternal fervor in those days and hadn’t had time to suss out the details from him then.

“Well, my gut told me to get Rakesh on board. We’d lost two shipments, there were some on-site clashes between workers’ groups and … But first, your turn. How’d you figure it out?”

“Research, Mr. Khan. Research on the net, poking around some secure databases and, Bam!” 

When Asad quirked a disbelieving eyebrow, she sighed. “OK fine, it wasn’t the most legal of searches but I have proof that someone’s been paying people in the media to stir up a hornet’s nest. I just don’t know who or why as yet.” 

That “as yet,” made him roll his eyes. She was not a bloodhound. She was a terrier who wouldn’t let go. 

Zoya twisted in his arms and slid her hands up his chest. “Asad, why?” 

“We’re not sure either. But my guess is that someone’s not happy that we are working with new vendors.”

“Has anything else happened that you’re not telling me about?” Thank god, he’d brought in Rakesh.

He kissed her fists. He knew he should tell her. If he didn’t, she’d go to insane lengths to find out the truth and endanger herself and god knows whom else in the process.   

“Asad?” Zoya prompted him as she worked herself into a worried lather.

 

“ … Umm, that fender-bender the other day …” 

“What! It wasn’t just a minor accident? You said a jeep nicked your car and fled the scene.”

“Yeah, but I think it was deliberate. Someone was trying to send me a message.” 

She felt paralyzed; the oxygen had been sucked out of the room.

 

Zaid stirred. May be he too sensed the undercurrents of distress in the room. He fussed. Zoya rose to hush and soothe him as she still processed Asad’s words. Her hands were cold. Zaid cried harder. Asad padded over to their side. He took a wailing Zaid from her bloodless hands.

“Shh baby, what is it? Are you hungry? Do you need a change?” Asad checked his son’s pajama bottoms and rubbed his stomach. He hummed and Zaid began to quiet down. 

Zoya still stood frozen by the crib.

With his free hand Asad drew her to him. 

“It’s OK. I’ll be fine. Nothing bad’s going to happen, I promise,” he soothed her too in between humming for Zaid. 

So many questions were racing and bouncing around her head. But so were terror and rage. She wanted to hold on to him and never let go; but she wanted to punch his lights out too.

Zaid still seemed restless. He continued to fuss. Asad tried to hand him to her. “His bottom is dry. He must be hungry.” 

“Oh really! Since you are such a super problem-fixer-upper, Mr. Khan, why don’t you feed him!”

And she stomped out of the room. 

“Zoya!”

He followed her out to the kitchen where she was taking deep breaths against the counter. Asad watched her get a drink of water.

He tried to pull her to him again.

“No!” she hissed, not wanting to wake up Dilshad. “Don’t touch me right now, Asad. I might just explode.”

But she took Zaid in her arms and walked back to their room to settle in the rocking chair as she began to feed him. Zoya whimpered as Zaid chowed down hard on her. 

Asad was at her feet the next instant once again sliding his finger in to stop Zaid from hurting her.

“It’s OK,” she told him. “You don’t have to be my constant knight in shining armor. I’ll manage on my own. I'm a strong girl.”

Asad sighed; his hand crept up to massage his forehead. He knew what that jab meant: I'll take care of myself just like you'll take care of yourself. “Zoya, c’mon baby, don’t be mad at me. I didn’t want you to worry.” 

“So the next time, I’m in trouble or stressed about something, I shouldn’t tell you because you’ll worry? Is that it? Is that what you’re telling me to do, Mr. Khan?”

She sighed in relief when Zaid fell asleep at her bre*ast. 

Asad bit his tongue. The woman was a holy terror. She had this built-in inverter or something that twisted his sensible words into bizarre combinations and improbable scenarios. And for the life of him, he could never find a logical or reasoned way to contradict or convince her otherwise. Apparently at that very moment his grey cells would decide to freeze up and dive for cover when Jhansi ki Rani went on a rampage. 

Zoya was obviously not done. As she covered herself up and got up to deposit Zaid in his crib, she ranted on. “What a happy marriage we have! We’ll live happily ever after because hello, we won’t let the other person know about our worries and fears and failures. Heaven forbid that we find out about each other’s troubles because then apparently we’ll be struck by lightning or keel over from heart attacks because we’ll be so goddamn worried.”

Asad rolled his eyes. There she goes again. Still on a tear. At this rate he'd go cross-eyed.

Uh oh, she was turning to him and that finger was getting ready to stab him in the chest repeatedly.

“You promised on our mehendi night, which you ruined by the way, thank you very much, and that night when you were so rough with me at Abbu’s house, and the second time in Mangalpur that—that we wouldn’t hide our fears and worries from each other!”

She’d stabbed him at least fifteen times by now. 

Asad would’ve bitten her finger too like he did his son's to discipline him, but her accusations were doing a number on him. He was beginning to feel guilty now. Damn, she was right, he had made her that promise. He had ruined her Mehendi ceremony for her forever, and that other night at the Siddiqui house under virtual house arrest by Tanveer, he’d been so livid with repressed anxiety that he’d almost ra—

Oh god! Was he behaving the same way even now? Was he taking out his repressed rage on her again? Hurting her?

Asad groaned and dragged her into his arms in a fierce hug that lifted her clear off the ground. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he repeated in an agonized litany. 

Zoya couldn’t breathe, he held her so tight. “Asad,” she croaked. “I can’t breathe!” 

He let her go feeling even worse. But now that her arms were free she wrapped them around his neck. Slowly, his arms came up around her too.

“I don’t want you to apologize for that, you silly, crazy man! That’s all water under the bridge. I just want you to tell me what’s bothering you so that I don’t have to go behind your back to ferret out the truth.”

She continued to talk softly as he rocked her in his arms. “I know you’ve been shielding me from all this. But I don’t want that! I want to know what you know, what you’re going through. I want us to talk about the things that have you so tense. I hate guessing what might be wrong and imagining the worst. Just be straight with me, is that too much to ask?” 

“No,” Asad whispered. “It’s not too much to ask.” 

“I hate that once trouble comes you go back into your hyper protective 17th century mode.” 

He smiled. Yup, he did do that, didn’t he?

She backed up to look into his face. Zoya played with the collar of his kurta. “Umm, and I also feel bad about being excluded.” 

“From all the fun and action, you mean?” Asad asked with an eyebrow raised in taunt. “See, that’s why I don’t want to tell you half the time. Because you’ll think of it as one grand adventure and go half-co*cked into your Sherlock Holmes meets James Bond mode—that terrifies me, Zoya!” 

 

“Asad!” 

“Babe, it seriously does. Nothing scares me more than imagining what goes on in that head of yours when we’re under siege.” 

“But I hate not knowing and when people are keeping secrets from me! It used to drive me insane whenever Jeeju and Aapi or my friends tried to throw a surprise party for me.”

He sobered up fast. “This is no party, Zoya. This is serious business. And I meant it about not poking around in this.” 

Zoya pouted. But his tone made her thoughtful too. He would know about what was at stake better than her. 

“But you can still talk to me about it, can’t you? We can brainstorm solutions, try to find a way out? I can still be of some help?” 

And there it was, Asad thought. That was the real reason for why she had to know. She didn’t want to feel useless or helpless. She wanted to do something. Whatever, but something. Any thing to not wallow in freezing worry. She was just hard-wired to make things better, to be the little Ms. Fix-it. She came from a world where she believed that every problem had a way out. A world where technological innovations trailblazed new ways; where you didn’t learn to live with problems just because it was standard operating procedure. Where you didn't challenge the system; you learned to live with it. She could never understand why someone wouldn’t want to change things if they didn’t work.

Asad hoped that his world would never change her.

He framed her face in his hands.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I would die if—”

“Shh, don’t even think it.” Asad led her to bed and together they huddled under the thick comforter. 

“What if—” Zoya tried again and he put a finger on her mouth to sush her.

“No what ifs. I’ve played that game a million times in my head and it only makes things worse.”

“Then what do we do? What can we do?” 

“We figure things out.” 

“Will you consider shutting down the project?”

He sighed. He had toyed with that idea. They’d crunched the numbers; it would cost too damn much. And a shut down would lead to more labor issues for sure.

“What about Abbu? Mine? Yours? Can’t they help?”

Asad remained silent. 

“Genius,” Zoya muttered, pressed up against his chest. “You haven’t told them, right? Two people with experience and contacts in the industry and you haven’t told them because you didn’t want them to worry either. Oh, Asad, what do I do with you!” 

His arm tightened around her. She pressed her lips to his neck. Asad smiled. “Abbu read something and did ask, but I brushed him off. I’ll talk to them tomorrow, OK?” 

“Promise? You won’t be Batman on your own? You’ll share the fight and the glory?” 

Asad chuckled. “I’d share it with you in a heartbeat!”

“Now that’s my dark knight in charming armor!” 

“Charming? I thought it was ‘knight in shining armor’?”

“Oh, Mr. Khan, don’t you remember? Now pay attention, I don’t want to have to explain it again. It’s charming because you’re my Jahanpanah charming. And besides, Batman can’t have shining armor. It’s got to be matte finish so he’s untraceable in the dark!”

“Sorry babe, looks like I took my stupid pills again.” 

She giggled up at him satisfied with his returning memory; she felt more hopeful now. They'd put their heads together and figure it all out. They were super-jodi Asad and Zoya after all. Zoya saw his face and her smile dipped. He’d fallen asleep mid-discussion. Allah miyan what’s wrong with Mr. Khan! But she hoped he’d sleep like a baby tonight. The harsh planes of his face had relaxed, but only a smidgen. He needed a good night's rest. Tomorrow, she would show him her ideas and plans. Tomorrow they’d be cowboys and ninjas. They'd be righteous! 



Song in Title:

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): "Jai Ho"





Jan 22, 2016

Haath-Vaath Maar Di Ai, Baithe Kabhi Na Back-Seat (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 37 times)

Chapter 123

 

So how soon would it be that Zaid got a mashed-up bite of cheesy, tomatoey gloop that his mom loved so much and his dad made faces at?

Not too long.

Hmm, though come to think of it, he’d seen his dad sneak a bite from mom once or twice when Dadi wasn’t looking.

 

Ammi had smothered a gasp and a giggle and Abbu had winked at her.

May be Abbu liked it too; he just didn’t want anyone to know.

But Zaid knew. And he’d keep Abbu’s secret. All safe.

Because Zaid was a master secret-keeper. Like when he saw Khala kissing Santa Claus.

Haw, did Ayaan Chachu know?

But he wasn’t going to rat Santa out. Santa Miyan had got him lots of presents—he even had his own red guitar now. It played better songs than Abbu’s.

Zaid flapped his arms and beat the tray table with his tiny hands but Ammi and Abbu seemed to be locked in some alternate bubble of their own where time stilled and music swelled.

They locked themselves in their zone shutting the door on everyone’s faces.

They got that way sometimes.

Me too! Me too! And on those days little Zaid did experience annoyed moments of FOMO. He had to remind them that he existed too! That he was the center of their universe. And no, not even Dobby could claw through that bubble; he would only roll his eyes and shake his head when they got like that.

But thank god for Dadi who made that noise in her throat because only then would Ammi and Abbu spring apart like guilty bunnies. Ammi would turn red and Abbu would hightail it out of the room at a fast clip. 

 

So did Zaid like his first bite of pizza served in a pudding-like consistency? Sure thing! It was a new taste, but was it, really? Hadn’t his taste buds already feasted upon this even in their inception? His dad did tease his mom after all: “If they ever do DNA sequencing on you, half of you will be pizza.”

Zaid still hadn’t figured out who this, “Mr. Khan!” was. Only Ammi called out that name and Abbu laughed whenever she did.

Was he Abbu’s friend? Why hadn’t he met him? 

Little Zaid rapped his spoon on the highchair tabletop; it was already showing signs of fresh dents laced with Zaid-DNA.

He hummed in happy approval of his first bite of pizza. 

HhhmmMMMMAaaahhhhh!

 

“The best I can tell, it’s some shadow group that calls itself ‘Indians For Progress and Prosperity.’ They seem to be feeding false reports and propaganda pieces to these news rags.”

As promised, Zoya was delivering on her hacking and detecting results from the smear campaign she’d uncovered. But she’d also hit a wall. This was no amateur. These people had covered their tracks too well. Which was all the more suspicious, wasn’t it? What were they hiding? Their site was a dead end—a bunch of twaddle about innovation and progress while dil hai Hindustani. They advocated for unfettered business enterprise, cutting through red tape, and demanding open access to public lands protected by the Ministry of Envoronment, Forest and Climate Change.

Hmm. 

“No idea of the proxy that’s funding them? It’s got to be a well-known group, right? Someone prominent enough to want to cover their tracks?” Asad asked as he loosened his tie and bent over Zaid’s crib to kiss his head. 

It had to be someone who wanted to wound by stealth because they didn’t want to risk exposure nor a direct confrontation.

Zaid reached out his arms and Asad dashed into the bathroom to wash his hands first. 

“And someone with enough money to invest in this shadow war,” Zoya too was thinking aloud. But who? Why? 

Idly she popped another potato chip into her mouth. She wiped her hands on her jeans and hid the crinkling bag behind a cushion on the rocking chair. If Mr. Khan saw her, he’d growl as usual about filling her stomach with junk food instead of eating a proper dinner.

Chik-chik and choon-choon he would do. Like always when he saw her with her chips or cookies. Or crackers. 

She watched Asad return and pick up Zaid to lift him high over his head—the baby was ready for bed, in his yellow footie pajamas painted with spaceships and rockets. Asad would lower Zaid to brush noses with him and then return him high in the air. Then he’d lower him again to rub his nose against Zaid’s belly or blow raspberries.

Rinse and repeat.

Her son’s delighted squeals made her smile.

But a second later her eyes widened in horror and then squeezed shut. No, no, no, no.

Damn. 

Asad sat down in the rocking chair with Zaid in his arms and leaned back. Crunching sounds behind him made him sigh and look up at her.

“How many times have I told you to stop hiding half-eaten junk food behind pillows? Serves you right. It’s all mushed up now!” Though knowing her she would probably still scarf down the crumbs or sprinkle them across pizza or pasta. 

Zoya scrambled for damage control. She better distract him before the lecture came. “I don’t get who could be going through all this trouble to blackball you,” she said in a super somber tone. “We know the motive is to stall your project, but why?” 

Rakesh was trying to peel back the layers from this enigma too. And of course Zoya was working closely with his IT team—who could’ve dared say no? 

In her research she’d found that the more established media wasn’t running these stories of sly malice and coy innuendo—as yet. As best as she could tell, it was some of the second tier, obscure special interest publications that were beating the drums of alarm. They were crying foul about how environmentalists had hijacked the progress agenda, how this was forcing jobs cuts and raising the unemployment rate.

But what was the real motive?

Who were the movers and shakers behind these dummy corporations? Why was Asad’s company’s work being spun as too radical when the city’s government was actively backing green projects that were in-line with Bhopal’s Smart City Mission? Why were there hints and murmurs about kickbacks or shady backroom deals of astroturfing—projects not really being green but masquerading as eco-friendly. 

It made no sense. They’d tried things this way and that. Follow the money was the old journalistic adage. But this group had managed to effectively hide their trail. So now what? Work backwards? But who was hoping to benefit from this game of charades? Competitors, seemed the obvious answer. But there was nothing pinnable, or pointable, or provable.

In the meanwhile Zoya’s terror-bingeing was mounting. 

 

She had to slap her hand away to not call Asad every 15 minutes to check up on him. Till he got home—safe, in one Jahanpanah-six-packs piece, she’d be a twitchy, nervous wreck on many days. She’d begun lobbying for him to work from home—at least on one day of the week.

That wasn’t too much to ask for was it? 

To make it an offer he couldn’t refuse she’d had the storeroom tricked out and souped up into a kind of home office—an office away from office—as she put it. She had used it during her pregnancy on and off, and whenever she could get away from being a new mom—for non-mom interests and duties.

It would now be perfect for Asad and his non-dad business.

“Promise, we won’t disturb you. You can lock yourself behind closed doors and put all the ghar-sansar noises and smells and calls behind you. Please, please, please!” Zoya had continued to hound him for at least a week, if not two, before he caved in.

 

Despite humself he liked what she’d done with the place. It was probably the one place in the house that showed her stamp—it was quirky and kooky.

It was all her.

She hadn’t really done much redecorating to their room or the rest of the house—even when he’d told her to have a go at it. 

“I love it the way it is, why would I want to change anything,” she’d said long ago. 

“Make it your own, in your image,” he’d persisted. 

“I don’t need to,” she’d sassed back, dimple deep and sure. “It’s yours and you’re mine. It’s already in my image!”

But this space truly was Jhansi ki Rani’s kingdom—if Jhansi ki Rani had grown up in 21st century New York that is. The big farmhouse-style table she used as a desk was all warm brown and nicked up with god knows how many marks made by god knows who—wait, were those bite—? Of course, Zaid had already been here marking and eating his territory.

It wasn’t glass—his tabletop of choice. But then glass wouldn’t have preserved—Asad traced Zaid’s dental calligraphy lovingly. There were nutty woods all over—a carved walnut screen hid the storeroom clutter draped under a mirrorwork spread. A cloth doll hung from it too—suspended by a noose.

Ahh.

So Raaburt had been here too, then.

Asad knew that Ayaan used to do this to torment his kid sisters—it was a young boy’s signature revenge against sissy sisters who complained against him and got him into trouble.

Asad wondered what Zoya was being avenged for. There had to be a story behind that doomed doll. Some how Mona Darling must’ve upstaged Raaburt. Again. 

He looked around the room some more—reluctant to sit his butt down and get to work. Even he didn’t want to admit to having fun exploring the recesses of his wife’s décor. Bright splashes of color splattered every surface. Even the leather chair had been draped in a Kantha stitch quilt—an ikat-printed lumbar pillow was squished into its back. Doll prototypes lay scattered about—sitting up on shelves or propping up books and stenciled-mugs crammed with pens and pencils. Pictures from the factory launch—the mayor cutting the ribbon, the shyly smiling workers—crowded the corkboard which spilled over with campy quotes and kitschy paraphernalia. 

“Dobby has no master,” proclaimed a bumper sticker next to a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. “Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.”

These bumped elbows with more photos from trips and family get-togethers. Asad couldn’t resist straightening a photo of his holding a new-born Zaid in the hospital.

Dobby had been here too? Asad turned to the window hearing a familiar sound: the cat sunbathing on the sill. He yawned.

Of course.

Asad never knew whether Dobby hung around him because he liked him or whether he was just keeping an eye on him as an arch frenemy. 

The opposite wall held a Captain America’s shield—there was some mythic lore about it that Zoya had tried to tell him about many times. But he never remembered. Something about it being indestructible because it was made out of vibranium, or unobtanium, or some other weirdanium.

Whatever. 

On a shelf next to it sat her light sabre that Omar had sent over long ago. Her American Girl doll—who now wore the onesie that Zaid had outgrown with “The Force is Strong with This One” still embossed on it. And next to these nested all of Asad’s trophies and medals from school: a 3D collage of his academic and athletic pursuits.

He loved this. She’d raided his childhood once again and given it a place of pride; she’d dusted off the terrible memories and returned his troubled adolescence—crisp and angst-free from the dry cleaners.

Another wall held giant maps of India and the US. She’d placed colorful pushpins on the cities and places she’d visited in both countries. A selfie of theirs at the Taj Majal from their honeymoon …

The photo he’d taken of her under the Hawa Mahal chhatris …

There was a whiteboard next to the maps—jammed with bucketlists and to-do lists.

He peered at the to-do list—oh boy, there was much here that she hadn’t done! Only 2 of the 11 items had been checked off. Some of those things were from before Zaid had been born!

Only Zoya.

But it was what he saw in the corner of the room that had him gagging first and then laughing out loud. Asad’s shoulders shook.

Big Bear too had returned from the dry cleaners. And Zoya had given in to Asad’s demand that his guitar stand be replaced in their room. The monstoristy was now serving as a beanbag chair—mostly used by Dobby when Zoya worked at the table or Ayaan when he popped in for a visit. There was a beloved photo on everyone’s phone somewhere—of Ayaan passed out on top of Big Bear, with Zaid too fast asleep on his favorite Chachu’s chest.

Next to a demoted Big Bear was a side table—stacked high with his old comic books—well-thumbed Tin-Tins, Asterixes, superheroes and Amar Chitra Kathas. The one on top caught his eye. It was the brand new Amar Chitra Katha he’d got for her on her last birthday: Rani of Jhansi: The Flame of Freedom.

Smiling, he flipped through it to read the inscription he’d written more than a year ago: “To my very own dimpled crusader and Shayara Bano. Goddess of the pepper spray and my Telpur ki Shehzaadi—may you win all battles against injustice, always slay mangalpur demons and raise an army of Jhansi ki ranis and rajas!”

Asad grinned as he replaced the comic. He looked around one last time.

Zoya’d cleaned up the room to make the place habitable for him but a potato chip piece was still smushed between the pillow and the chairback. He carefully collected the crumbs and dusted them into the trashcan. Finally he settled down at the table and clicked his laptop open.

Enough dawdling.

High time he got to work. But he got lost in the 15-inch digital frame that played a slideshow of hundreds of photos.

How did she get any work done with so many distractions? So many mellow inspirations ...

The frame was a replica of the one she’d given him for his office—she’d set it up so that she could change the pictures by adding or deleting them remotely from home. He didn’t even bother to ask how she did this.

His laptop whirred and reluctant icons lit up on the desktop. Asad clicked the browser open to check his emails. And his eyes snagged at yet another Zoyaism. He had to chuckle when he saw a post-it note stuck to the lamp shade: “I would if I could, but I can’t, so I won’t,” it announced unapologetically.  

Oh yes, he was in the Zoya zone all right.

God help him if he got any work done today.

 

At 11:30 she came in with a steaming cup of coffee and a small bowl of almonds and pistachios for him. And with Zaid in tow. It was time for a break and Abbu probably needed some koochie koo therapy. Zoya plopped the baby in the middle of the table and he clacked away at the laptop like he’d seen his parents do.

Zoya slipped her arms around Asad’s neck from the back and kissed his cheek.

“I love having you work from home,” she murmured in his ear, inhaling his after-shave.

Asad rolled the chair back to pull her into his lap. “With these perks I love working from home even more,” he nuzzled her neck and she snickered. “I love what you did with the room,” Asad lifted her hand to kiss it.

“Really? Tell me more about everything you love!”

He did. Between tiny kisses at her temple and ear—punctuating every tiny detail. His hands were traveling down and her breath was hitching up—

Zaid burbled and cooed.

So they watched him, waiting for their heartbeats to return to normal. Parents needed to behave too, in front of their kids. The little mister grabbed a pen and sucked on it.

“OK, that’s enough,” Asad intervened, gently dislodging his son’s grip. They pulled him into everyone’s favorite lap sandwich. Zaid bounced and knocked his knees against them wanting to hustle and clutch forbidden things. These days he preferred to be unrestrained by adoring parental arms—he tolerated being held only if he was being transported from one fun place to another. But wait, Abbu’s collar looked incredibly edible. Mmmmmhhhmmmm.

The sun streamed in, bedazzling their little world. Asad kissed Zaid’s downy head.

“Gaahhhmmmmbbbaaa,” his son chirped. Both his parents reached out to wipe his chin. 

“Why does he drool so much these days?” Asad asked, putting his handkerchief away.

“I don’t know. May be he wants to speak up a storm but his mouth and tongue just won’t keep up! Or may be it’s all those bubbles and constant humming,” Zoya offered up a mother’s unbiased analysis.

“I can’t wait to hear his first word,” Asad mused.

“Me neither,” Zoya breathed.

The girls had a pool going—everyone had bet a Rs. 1000 on what the baby’s first word would be. It was a toss up between Ammi, Abbu, and Dadi. Ayaan was the only holdout—he predicted that it would be Dobby or Chachu.

“What if he doesn’t speak for a long time?” Zoya worried. The moms had made her rub honey and salt on his lip to ensure that wouldn’t happen but you never know. Every kid crossed their milestone at their own pace. You couldn’t hurry nature along.

“He’s talkative enough,” Asad reassured her. “He’ll be fine. He’s got the syllables and the sounds already. It’s just a matter of stringing them into words.”

A timer pinged from her jeans pocket. Asad looked around wondering about the source.  

“C’mon baby,” Zoya picked up Zaid. “Time for Abbu to get back to work. Coffee break’s over!”

It was hard to tell who was more bummed: Zaid, or his Abbu.

Asad frowned. Did she have to be such a drill sergeant? Would five more minutes have killed her? But his phone rang. Prasad.

Coffee break was really over.

Cr*ap.

 

Her obsession had possibly started the day Najma Phuphi had couriered a pair of shiny-red baby boxing gloves and baby boxing shorts for the world’s best nephew.

But, truth be told, it had all really started as a joke even before Little Mukka, AKA Zaid, had blessed them with his birth. In Zoya’s third trimester, Najma couldn’t stop talking about her first gift to the baby being boxing gloves. To match Bhaijaan’s of course.

She’d followed through on that promise with a mock crochet set for the newborn—complete with tiny lace-ups to tighten the cricket-ball sized mittens.

They came with matching boxing booties.

Then when Zaid had outgrown those (already immortalized wearing them in a million pinned and tagged pictures), Phuphi had phollowed up with the real deal.

Real leather. Real badass.

Then Zoya saw the film “Mary Kom.”

She raved about it for days. As an inside joke, Asad made the mistake of presenting her with a brand new charm for her bracelet. Because a 21st century Jhansi Ki Rani needs boxing gloves instead of a sword and shield. Besides her trusty pepper spray of course.  

The rest is history.

 

“You have to teach me,” she declared to Asad one fine day.

“Teach you? What?” he asked, distracted, still tapping away at his laptop. They were in the new home office that he was still falling in love with.

But he really should’ve learned to pay more attention by now. She probably meant, you’ll have to touch me. Now, that he could fall behind and drop all work for.

“Hellooo, BOXING!!!”

“Wha—?”

“No, really! I mean it. It’d be so cool. And I think I’d be really good at it too. Don’t you remember how good I am at Karate? Remember, I showed you my moves when I first moved in here?”

Oh boy. Did he remember.

Then too the woman had been hellbent on distracting him.

She was fully convinced of her fighting skills.

But she never did manage to tell him what that show had been about. Why was she practicing her non-existent Karate by his window in the middle of the night? He’d forgotten to ask because he’d made the mistake of looking into her eyes.

Besides, who was he to burst her bubble?

Asad bit off a chuckle. “Umm, do you really need me to teach you? Why don’t you learn boxing the same way you’ve learned everything else in your arsenal: from movies and video games that you love so much?”

“Besides, how many times have you watched ‘Mary Kom’?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. He already knew because she kept announcing it loud and clear everyday, broadcasting it even on her social media sites telling friends and family members to girl power it up and kick patriarchal butt.

“I’m sure you know everything there is to know about boxing and more!” Asad continued, tongue firmly in cheek. “In fact, I’m sure you could teach me a few things.”

Zoya was not liking this teasing. Not one bit. She knew a backhanded compliment when she saw one. Her husband seemed to be having way too much fun at her expense.

It must stop.

“Mr. Khan!” she hissed. “You’re so mean! You’re teaching me, and that’s final! I already ordered my gloves online. They’re hot pink! I even got them monogrammed and everything!” She took his hand and turned it over to stab the scar on his palm. “—just like this! So there!”

She clapped her hands, all aflutter.

“It’ll be so fun!” And she scampered off to tell Dilshad.


Asad looked at Zaid. What had just happened?

His mom’s inspiration, Zaid Miyan already had his gloves on this morning. He loved to gnaw on them. They even showed some champion-sized bite marks as he sat at Big Bear’s feet. Those paws were large enough to be his training punch mitts. The boy would fast grow into the title his Chachu had given him: Champ.

Zaid looked at his dad: Where’re your gloves? Let’s rrrrumble. He waved his arms and managed to whomp his sidekick.

Dobby Miya-oon did not approve of this. He hissed off to sulk near Asad’s feet.

Asad sighed. He needed to have a talk with Najma. ASAP. No more boxing paraphernalia. But it was midnight in California.

Tonight then, for sure.

But for now, his Sunday was probably shot. He had personal trainer duties to perform. And this new client was high-maintenance—very set notions and firm opinions on just about everything. She probably wouldn’t listen to a thing he said.

 

He needn’t have worried though. Not when he saw her for their first training session. Oh she was ready to listen all right.

Zaid and Dobby were down for their afternoon naps and Dilshad away for a Quran Khwani at a relative’s.

Asad had fitted out the punching bag in the recently converted storeroom. Suddenly this room had morphed into the heart of the home—neglected all these years as a dusty tomb of bad memories—it had now become a room that could become anything at will—much like the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts. But Asad was one of those Muggles who would know nothing about Hogwarts. May be his father-in-law could enlighten him. Or Dobby. (This was after all the same place where Warrior-maiden Zoya had sneaked in a terrified Mariam to protect her from Mangalpur villains—and a certain Akdu Ahmed Khan.) 

He was adjusting the height of the bag and giving it some test jabs when Zoya walked in.

Hot damn.

Hair high up in a fountain ponytail that bobbed with each step. Short shorts. His vest. Bra peeking through. Long legs that ended in ankle socks and sneakers.

“Won’t you be cold in that get up?” Asad asked, more than a little warm himself and already devising ways of warming her up.

“Not for long!”

She grinned up at him; dimples blinding at high-beam, eager to start.

He couldn’t help himself.

Asad yanked her to him. “Do we have to waste this golden opportunity on boxing? Kids are asleep, Ammi’s away for at least 4-5 hours (he'd already confirmed that she'd reached there safely). I have better ideas for what we could be doing right now.”

“Asad!” she giggled and wiggled in his arms, dodging his kisses. She knew he meant Dobby as the other kid. “No, you promised!”

“It would be a good warm up—and you have to do that anyways.” Asad tried to sweet-talk her as he ran his hands down her arms—one smooth and the other bumpy and puckered.

Zoya moaned. The offer was tempting.

His thumbs trailed up the inside of her arms and gooseflesh erupted all over.

Zoya slipped out of his arms slapping his amorous hands away.

“No funny business, Mr. Khan,” she wagged a finger at him. “Training first, and then—”

Asad crossed his arms over his chest mulishly. “Only on one condition.”

“What?” Zoya pouted.

“That bra needs to go.”

Zoya exhaled. She reached in the back under the vest and unhooked the bra. Then she slipped one strap off a shoulder, wiggled her arm out of it and pulled the bra out from the other side. It landed on—-

It landed somewhere. On something. Probably on Big Bear.

“Ready?” she arched an eyebrow.

His eyes snagged at the shadowy peaks under that white cotton.

“Asad?”

“ … Hmm?”

“Eyes up here, baby.”

Reluctantly Asad dragged his eyes up to meet hers. He gulped. And cleared his throat.

“Right … yeah. So let’s start with some foot work and then some sparring.”

“No gloves right now?” Zoya asked, extremely bummed out.

Ahhh—he could have sucked on that pouty lip. “Umm, no, not right now. Feet and legs first—they’re your anchor and savior. We have to strengthen them first.”

Asad shook his head to clear it. He wasn’t lying, just tweaking things to his advantage. Was that so wrong? He was the trainer after all. He had rights. And needs.

He showed her how to to rock and bounce on the balls of her feet. To dance and dart, to always keep your feet under you. To always keep moving.

She was bored in ten minutes. “But when do we get to the gloves?” Zoya huffed—all that bouncing and dancing around was getting her winded. It was hard to remember to always keep moving from the core. So that was the secret to her Jahanpanah’s six packs? 

“Soon. A good warm up first is a must—we’ll go slow to avoid injuries and build, umm … endurance.” His eyes wandered and jaw dropped—he was just—-well, he was distracted. Could you blame him?

“But when do I get to try the puncing bag out?” OK, this was not going according to plan at all. She hadn’t even got a chance to inaugurate her brand new gloves. And the noticeable bulge in her husband’s pants was getting to her. She was breathing hard, had worked up a fine sheen of sweat that made the vest cling, and what the hell, she was just a little bit horny herself.

“We’ll have to tape up with hand wraps for that—you don’t want to have a boxer’s fracture on your first day of training, do you?”

“Duh, I won’t if I wear my gloves!”

Oh god. Asad rolled his eyes. He didn’t have the time to explain that it was a very real possibility. Obviously there wasn’t enough blood in his head—his mind, that is, to argue with her. Or may be there was too much bloodflow to his head.

“OK fine," he crumbled. "Put those bad boys on and let’s take them for a spin.”

She squealed and clapped. And bounced. Asad’s eyes nearly rolled off to the back of his head, but valiantly, selflessly, he helped her put them on, all the while giving her a bunch of strict instructions—after he’d shown her a few shadowboxing moves: Don’t hit too hard. Throw from the elbow, not wrist. Remember the feet—keep moving. Blah. Blah. Blah. She’d stopped listening.

Did Mr. Khan really think that she hadn’t researched her stuff? Please.

Zoya took a jab at the bag. It was harder than she thought it’d be. She ducked, dodged and blocked like he’d shown her. Asad held the bag for her, ocassionally offering tips and encouragement.

“Don’t tense up, or clench your hands too tight. You’ll be sore otherwise. Core—work through the core. Engage it, see? (he lifted his T-shirt to show her—really, Mr. Khan? Sneaking a peep-show in there to make her drool) or you'll hurt your back," he continued. What? He was only telling her about muscle safety. He was being a diligent trainer.

"And watch the feet—not too wide.” He demo-ed the foot placement again; he showed her his sculpted abs again—they bunched and rippled begging to be raked or showered with kisses. Trust him to turn training into a floor show and some foreplay. 

“Good girl! Nice and easy—controlled. Knees slighty bent. Don’t lock up.” Huh? No, he was still looking out for her. He just didn't want her to injure her knees, seriously, you guys. Those knees needed to be strong to—-

Asad shook the red lustmist from his eyes. He made her go through another work up of lunges and shadowboxing; he throbbed in anticipation but kept his eyes on the ball. They’d do mitt training next weekend. “You’re alternating upper and lower body workouts at the gym, right?”

Zoya gulped (not noticing her husband's groan); her eyes skittered away in shame. Ever since Naz aunty had left there was no one around to hound them into the gym and whip them into shape. So they’d slacked off. Just a tad.

Shireen made excuses. “Kitna sara kaam pada hai, Allah!”

Dadi and Nuzzhat had been the most enthusiastic converts but now that Nikhat was gone … the lull and bad habits had returned. They went to the gym may be on one day in a week—mainly because Ayaan made fun of them. “I could’ve gone to the Formula 1 Finale in Dubai for all the money you guys wasted! Just imagine—the post-race concerts! The festivals and the food! Y’all are so useless!”

They’d gotten a workout that day. By pounding and thumping Ayaan. Even Dadi hadn't come to his rescue.

Zaid had been a bit alarmed though. He was learning quick: you never messed with the women in the house.

For two weeks after that though, they’d dragged their butts to the gym on an extra day—just to shut Ayaan up.

“Ow,” Zoya yelped suddenly.

Asad was at her side in an instant. The bag swayed slightly—disoriented and unancho*red.

“Are you OK?”

“Umm hmm. Just a slight twinge, is all.”

He made her rotate her wrist and checked the bones.

“I’m OK, really,” Zoya whispered.

Asad grabbed her wrists and peeled off the straps with his teeth. He tossed the gloves away.

“Asad! I wasn’t done!”

“Oh yes, you’re done! I am too. Time for a break.” This once he would decide when it was time to take a break.

There was only so much a man could take after all.

Initially, he’d thought that he’d have her under him in a few seconds and all boxing fantasies would be forgotten. But to watch her dart and hop and dance and bounce—-to see her bre*asts jiggle, the white cotton cling and mold to her nipples had been slow and sweet, sweet torture—he could get used to this. And why hadn’t he realized how erotic this could be? Wait till he got her sparring with him. He’d—

He would’ve cut the lesson short there and then (he needed a seventh pack workout—bad), but that tiny frown of concentration on her forehead stopped him. Zoya was in the zone—she was doing what she wanted to do. She had the stance right—body braced, chin tucked, fists up, elbows by the side—there was real potential here. They could work on speed and reflexes next. And may be this was a good way to burn off that restless and fretful energy that seemed to pour off her these days.

And she was actually following instructions.

For once.

He didn’t have the heart to interrupt. If she hadn’t cried out in pain he’d have let her continue. For a few more minutes, that is.

But now that he was within kissing distance he couldn’t stop himself. Asad’s hands lifted her by her waist so that her bre*asts were at mouth level. He sucked through the thin cloth and she moaned in gratitude. Her legs found their sweet spot and her heat suctioned and blazed through him. Oh yes, she was ready too.

“Oh god, Zoya! You drive me crazy, you know that, right?”

“You’re welcome,” she breathed.

He already had her down on the rug, one hand already sliding down the inside of her shorts. Zoya cried out as his fingers homed in on her waiting nub and stroked her to a punishing frenzy—it was revenge for tempting him and keeping him at arm’s length for so long.

His mouth teased and tasted the garnets at her bre*asts.

She was already swollen and god-help-him so wet—for him. All for him.

His fingers danced and darted now, sliding and gliding; next, his mouth lowered and his greedy tongue flicked and lashed, mining that glittery gem.

Her wild hips bucked, thrusting eagerly to greet his mouth.

She didn’t know when she’d kicked her shoes away or when Asad had shucked her shorts and vest off.

He’d only left her pink-edged white ankle socks on.

There was something about them. Something that turned him on even more. And when he looked down to watch her face, that mouth … when he grabbed that ponytail as she worked him … on her knees—oh god, he nearly came then.

But he came later when she kneeled in front of him on all fours, hungry to take him in. That sweet ass wiggled and booty-called—-

He watched himself ram in and out from between those half-moons and … and he caught a glimpse of the white socks from the side of his eye.

Her toes arched; the puma soared.

… elbows … knees … and toes … She sang that song for Zaid when they played together …

… on her elbows, knees and toes …

He came then.

 

“Asad?”

“Hmm?” They were still on the rug; he still massaged her wrist. He’d tape it up for her so that she wouldn’t be sore. He’d grabbed some cushions and a throw from one of the armchairs to cover them up.

“You’ll be sore tomorrow,” he warned. “Do some stretches.”

“My wrist you mean?”

He laughed. “All over, baby. You’ll be sore all over. Have some haldi milk just in case.”

She made a face—what was with these people and haldi milk. Gross. Zoya returned to the subject she wanted to talk about with him. She’d been thinking about it for some days now—when she took a break from her worrying that is. “We have to think about protection. I don’t want to be pregnant again for some time.”

“But you’re nursing—that’s safe.”

“Not when he’s on solids now. We’ll have to be super careful. No Irish twins for me!”

“Irish twins?”

“When the second baby comes within 11-12 months after the first.”

“But we’re way past that.”

“But still! Not now. I want us to enjoy Zaid more. Be able to do more stuff with him. So not for another year or two.” 

“At least,” he agreed.

He had read that a woman’s body took a year to fully recover from childbirth. It made sense. He would’ve loved a little girl. But Zaid could wait to be bhaijaan. What was the rush. Besides the kid already thought of Dobby as his little brother—his own Ayaan.

Though if you asked Dobby he’d say that he was Zaid Miyan’s Bhaijaan—he came first, didn’t he? And like any self-respecting big brother he’d saved the munchkin’s life, hadn’t he?

So it was settled. No moot point about it—nothing to see here. Keep it moving, people.

Dobby blinked his eyes. He’d managed to get his paws on yet another bra as he swanned into the room after his eleventieth nap of the day. He perched himself on Big Bear’s belly and watched his humans go another round. Not boxing. It was that age-old sparring game that they loved to play so much. Really?

 

 

Song in Title:

Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015): "Banno Tera Swagger Laage Se*xy"








Mar 14, 2016

Tere Bin Jee Nahin Lagta, Tere Bin Jee Nahin Sakta (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 13 times)

Chapter 124 

 

“Shut up, Mr. Khan,” she muttered darkly. His cheery I-told-you-sos were grating on her nerves. He had no right to look so relaxed and fit.

And smug. 

Asad hadn’t been kidding. She was sore. All bloody over. 

“You didn’t stretch like I told you to, did you?” he’d smirked through his coffee when he heard her groan and hobble out of the bathroom the next morning. That’s what had triggered her grumpiness. 

Her quads and glutes were killing her.

And her core?

She made a face and swore under her breath. 

“Work through the core,” he had kept telling her yesterday. Show off!

Sadist.

Tyrant. 

Sh*it. 

What was she thinking? She should have just cut the foreplay short yesterday and stuck to breaking in her new gloves flat on her back. With Asad on top. Then he could’ve worked his core by grinding into her— 

With a soft moan Zoya flopped down on the bed—facedown. Asad’s swaq switched to concern. “Aw, poor baby,” he murmured and leaned over to massage her back. 

Zaid raised his head. He was on AmmiAbbu bed gnawing on his teething ring.

Baby? Someone call me?

Legs tucked under him, these days he was trying to scoot forward—that was the next new mission, the next frontier. To boldly go where no Khan baby had been before. Well, no Khan baby from his generation that is. Because hello, he was the pioneer.

Zaid used his butt and knees and hands to propel himself forward; he wiggled and shimmied but nothing much happened. Nada. This made him hum in anger.

Zoya meanwhile groaned in relief this time. It felt good to feel Asad’s contrite hands on her. He owed her that back rub for overworking her yesterday. So what if he’d warned her? He should have warned her better. Allah miyan, what’s wrong with this man.

“I’ll run a hot bubble bath for you. That’ll help with the body ache,” Asad offered. 

She nodded, head still pressed into the bedding. Zoya sighed in gratitude as she heard him run the water in the bathroom. Aw, come to think of it, Mr. Khan wasn’t such a bad guy after all. 

Zaid slapped her back with soft pats like he’d seen his Abbu do.

Aw. How lucky was she? Another good guy offering more TLC.

Not to be outdone, Dobby climbed up on her back and settled down with a soft plop. 

“Ahhh,” she groaned. 

 

The bubble bath must have worked its magic.

Because an hour later she was recharged enough to spar with him. Verbally. 

Here’s how it started: Zoya was devising unique ways of using up her potato chip crumbs which Mr. Khan had pulverized the day before. She sprinkled them on her omelet and toast in between feeding Zaid who sat between them enthroned on his high chair.

Zoya slathered her omelet pie with chilli sauce. 

And then she moaned in pleasure. 

Asad kicked her under the table and jerked his chin at Dilshad when Zoya glared at him. Ignoring him, she took a hearty bite, shut her eyes and moaned some more. 

Asad could bear this se*xy fudging of food frontiers only so much. It was criminal the way she didn’t respect food protocol.

Or stop making those sounds.

“Why must you do that?” he asked, quite patiently.

“Because it annoys you so much!” she quipped. 

Just to bug him more for his strict food tehzeeb she added another layer of potato chips. The omelet was now being reformulated as crunchy lasagna. 

Food fusion: 1; food tameez: 0.

And she was messing around with this—with her hands.

Zoya extended her arm. “Try it. It’s yum!” she teased. 

A piece fell on the glass table. Asad’s eyes squeezed in revulsion. 

Zoya eyed the offending morsel. She smirked. And picked it up to dump it into her mouth. 

A shudder rocked through him. 

Asad exhaled violently. “Aapka taste bahut ajeeb hai.”

Big mistake.

Oh no, Mr. Khan, you should not have said that. My abs are still sore thanks to you and now you dump “ajeeb taste” on me! That old Zoya Farooqui who liked to challenge a prickly Jahanpanah six packs on auto-pilot, reared her “oh really?” head.

“Yup, my taste MUST be very ajeeb! Look at who I chose to be the father of my son!” 

They glared at each other.

They stabbed their food and slammed their silverware, eyes drawn and still crossed at each other.

Dilshad rose to put her dishes away and ignored the cottony tension that settled at the table. 

They did this once in a while needing the silliest of excuses to needle one another and jump down each other’s throats. But they’d forget it in a milli-second and be back to being shameless cotton-flossed bunnies soon. At least this was a welcome reprieve from having to play the pyaar police—might as well savor it. And she wondered—not for the first time—did she need to have a talk with them? Zaid was growing up. She hoped to god they behaved themselves— 

They were adults, she told herself. It was their business. 

Dilshad u-turned her mind to the currently redrawn battlelines. Formerly horny bunnies now morphed into thorny porcupines; still scowling at each other. Their older taunts and complaints floated up in her mind: 

“Aap ko khana nahin aata hai!”

“Aap ko jeena nahin aata hai!”

Or,

“Aap ko tameez nahin hai! Clean up that mess!”

“Dekhiya Mr. Khan, main aapki kaneez nahin hoon! Don’t order me about!” 

And,

“Aap careless hain!”

“Aap robot hain!” 

“Ms. Farooqui!”

“MR. KHAN!” 

Allah, too ziddi for their own good, these two! Patting a prickly cactus would be more fun. 

Dilshad bit off a chuckle. 

Because to her, when these two fought it meant that the world was soon going to right itself; retilt back on its axis. It was just a regular tune-up and mechanical servicing that their relationship demanded—just some carburetor ka kachra. An oil change, tire rotation, some checks and refills, and VROOM, they’d be back in roaring business. 

A sunbeam tilted. 

Asad noticed a crumb clinging defiantly, valiantly, to the corner of her mouth. He raised his napkin to brush it off.

 

Disarmed by that infinitely indulgent and intimate gesture, Zoya grinned at him.

A beloved dimple blazed. 

Vroom!

Dilshad sighed. That was quick. Quicker than usual, in fact. 

The eye se*x thingy and poof! All was forgotten and forgiven.

Well almost. Much later, at night, he’d whisper hotly in her ear, “Jahanpanah ko ajeeb taste ki latt lag gayee hai.”

 

“Told ja,” she’d sass before they went back to eating each other up, cotton candy, chilli sauce and all. Delayed make-up se*x was to die for. Specially when deliciously slowed-down and topped with whipped cream and drizzled with caramel sauce. Surely he didn’t mind her messing with food then. Or getting her hands dirty.

Mmm, Mr. Khan, the hypocrite!

Food po*rn: 1; food tehzeeb: 0.

 

Meanwhile Zaid had scarfed down some of his own omelet and was now feeding his imaginary friends. This was a daily ritual. His belly was full; it was time for foodplay. There was a bite for Nemo. And Mowgli. And Captain America. Then Bagheera, and finally Baloo.

Dobby, the faithful sidekick, was parked under the high chair to slurp up all this eggy debris. He happily played all the shapeshifting roles of all the imaginary friends. 

“Dobby!” Zoya shrieked as he streaked across the floor to lap up another morsel. “Shoo, idiot boy! You’ll explode!” 

The vet had just told Zoya yesterday that Dobby was getting fat. He needed to be put on a diet. And here he was scarfing down on table scr*aps. 

Ayaan had laughed so hard when he heard this that he fell off the dining chair and knocked his head against the table leg. He had a gumball-sized forehead bump to prove it too. 

“Motu Dobby is a mini bhains,” he guffawed hard as he held his stomach. “You better put him on a diet or he’ll be a total drag in the Zaid Miyan and Dobby Miya-oon adventures. A worthless huffing puffing sidekick who’ll slow our hero down. Total dash mein bumboo! Isko gym bhejo! As it is you guys don’t go. At least he’ll paisa wasoolo!” 

Oh god, he had nearly died from laughing so hard. And then from being whomped by Nuzzhat. 

 

Zaid gurgled and burbled as his mom shooed Dobby away. 

Asad had just managed to dodge his wife’s food torture. But his son had better aim. A glob of buttery baby omelet landed on Abbu’s cheek and slowly slid down his face. It disappeared into a waiting fat cat’s mouth. 

Zoya laughed and Zaid whooped. Score! He flung his tiny legs in celebration. 

Dilshad whipped out her phone and took a picture of her son’s stunned expression. A giggling Zoya reused his napkin to wipe his face. Bechare Jahanpanah. Itni gustakhi! 

Asad remained rigid—a bristly ice sculpture.

“Welcome to the club, Mr. Khan. It’s a good thing that Raaburt isn’t here or this would have turned into a legit food fight between Chachu and his favorite bhatija!” 

Dilshad rushed to release her grandson from his high chair before his father detonated. 

But Zaid lunged to be in his Abbu’s arms instead. He had apology-kissiyan to give and fresh DNA to transfer. 

And of course Abbu melted. Like a hot knife through butter. Father and son played rocket ship and then took a gud-gudi break—after a careful swipe with a napkin on Khan chins and cheeks, and after an omlettey bib had been discarded. 

Baby squeals and daddy cheers filled the room as Ammi and Dadi smiles slow-danced. 

“Daaa bbbu!” Zaid shrieked as he thumped his palms on his dad’s shoulders.

Plates and silverware clattered on the dining table.

“Did he—did he just say his first word?” Zoya cried. It must have been! Her son had finally strung two syllables together, hadn’t he?

Hadn’t he?

“He said Abbu!” Asad whooped and swung Zaid in the air. “Say it again,” he begged his son. “Say Abbu again!”

“Mr. Khan, he said Dabbu, not Abbu!” Zoya teased.

“But he clearly meant to say Abbu!” He missed her little pout and crumpling lips.

She had so hoped that Zaid would say Ammi first. But he had said mamm maamamma so many times—may be that counted?

But that was so generic! Every baby’s first syllable in the world was “ma,” or some variation.

NBD.

“Ammi, he said Abbu right? You heard him?” Asad asked Dilshad who was filming this scene. She’d never seen her son this excited as he spun in circles with Zaid held high in his arms. Even Zaid was looking at him funny. What had happened to his Abbu?

He held his father’s face in his hands. Are you OK?

“He did,” wailed Zoya. “You’re right. He said Abbu and not Ammi!”

“Aww,” Asad loped over to draw her to him and Zaid.

Dilshad snorted, “It’s obvious that it was a combination of Dobby and Abbu!”

Zoya wailed louder. Not even second. Now her son, flesh and blood of her loins, would say her name after Dobby? Stupid fat cat. He was not only going on a diet—no, a fast—but he was going into solitary confinement too.

Dilshad couldn’t help laughing. The more her daughter-in-law cried the more she giggled. Allah, what was happening to her?

“Mammmam maaammm,” Zaid soothed his Ammi by patting her head. Why was Ammi crying? And why was Dadi laughing?

His head moved from Dadi to Ammi.

Ammi to Dadi.

He couldn’t make up his mind. He wanted to laugh like Dadi. But his lip stuck out. Why was Ammi crying? He leaped into her arms from Abbu’s and blubbered too. He slapped her cheeks with pudgy hands. What happened? Tell meeeee.

“Aww, my baby,” his mom whispered, blown away by her son’s teary concern. “You’re so sweet.”

“Mmm meeeeee,” her son cried.

“See?” Asad squeezed Zoya’s shoulder. “I think he’s saying Ammi.”

“Really?” Zoya asked in wonder. He wiped her tears and Zaid’s with his handkerchief.

“Really. I’m sure of it!”

“Yay,” Zoya cried and kissed her little scamp a hundred times. “Say Ammi, say Ammi again! Amm—mmi.”

“Aaaa mmm muumuum.”

Zoya sighed. Oh well. It was close enough.

 

And so it was that Zaid Miyan was able to trick both his parents into thinking that he’d called them by their names. But was he really calling them Abbu and Ammi? Who really knows.

He wiggled restlessly, wanting to be on the floor to play with Dobby. His job here up in his mom and dad’s arms was done.

He had adventures to go on. Music to play on his red guitar. Fat cat whiskers to pull.

Besides, they had already forgotten him.

Abbu was murmuring something soft and soothing in her ears. And they were back to playing that no-blinking eye-to-eye game again. Aw, c’mon AmmiAbbu! Dude, get a room already.

 

“Again?”

“Yes, please,” she begged.

It was his nightly ritual to read to Zaid in the rocking chair just before they put him to bed. The boy would gaze up at his Abbu solemnly, eyes tracking his dad’s lips. His fist would clamp around his dad’s thumb.

Abbu read to him softly. Calmly.

It was hypnotic. Mesmerizing.

His voice rumbled in his chest and Zaid could hear it against his ear just like he could hear Abbu’s heart drumming—dhak-dhak, dhak-dhak, dhak-dhak. He didn’t make the crazyass sound effects like Ammi or Chachu.

Zaid would stare into his dad’s eyes rewebbing and retrieving their kayanat connection. And slowly, softly, his lids would droop and whisper close. And slowly, softly, his Abbu would kiss him goodnight and place him in his crib.

Hibernate mode complete.

 

“Please,” Zoya begged some more. “He loves it!”

Asad sighed. “I think you love it a little more than him,” he muttered.

He had just read them the story of Rani Laxmi Bai yesterday. It was from the book that would be bundled with the Jhansi ki Rani doll from their collection and Zoya could not get enough of it. It even had a dedication from the writer and illustrator: “To all the Jhansi ki Ranis of kal, aaj, aur kal.”

Zaid perked up too. This story Ranjshi kRani was fun because his mom would act it out with him. As Abbu read she would make him ride on her back and swish her lightsabre and Captain America shield—single-handedly. He’d hang by her neck and gurgle and together they’d kick some British butt. Sometimes he got to swing the lightsabre too. She’d help him hold it and wave it about. The green light would glow and buzz.

BZZZZ.

And he would be one with the force. He would be Zaid Skywalker. 

Asad would shake his head at this daily drama. All this excitement—the baby would take extra long to sleep because he would be too wired.

All thanks to his hyper Ammi. 

But truth be told, he never tired of this scene. Aapi and Jeeju had already told him how she acted out her favorite stories as a kid complete with dialogues and expressions. This was just a re-enactment of those glory days that Aapi never got the chance to record. Asad on the other hand did remember to record these scenes. Aapi had cried a little bit on seeing that old Zoya with a new live prop—apna Zaid Miyan riding piggy back and slaying bad guys. Oh my god, why hadn’t she recorded a young Zoya fifteen years ago!

 

So Zaid was already a Jedi in training. But did you know he was also a mini white-belt Taekwondo trainee? His Khala made him do the kicks and strikes each time she massaged him. Khala moved his legs and arms and taught him blocking techniques as she stretched him out. 

“Ki-Hap!” she’d yell and his eyes would get dinner-plate sized.

“Kaa kaa maaamm umm baaa,” he’d imitate her. Hey, did anyone notice that Zaid was dividing his syllables into words these days? Whoa, he was speaking entire, whole sentences! Why didn’t anyone notice?

He was already close to graduating to the next form—he’d soon be earning his gold stripes. His Nikhat Phuphi had even sent him an appropriate uniform for these daily exercises.

But whenever Khala did his maalish and Chachu was around she could barely get a “Ki-Hap” in; on weekends Chachu would take over and make their other favorite sound effects.

“Dhishoom!”

And Zaid’s little mukka would fly. “Ka-Pow!” “Phshoow!” “BLAM!”

He would giggle so much that his stomach hurt. He would dribble so much that his chin would glisten.

Ayaan loved that Zaid was such a happy tyke. “He’s laughing Mukka,” he’d tell Humaira and Zoya and whoever would listen. “Must’ve got it from me!” he’d boast not noticing the sisters grinning behind his back, shaking their heads and mouthing, “no!”

But the other day Humaira had to remind Ayaan: “stop with these silly sound effects! As it is Aapi is freaking out that he’s not speaking properly and it’s probably your fault for teaching him these nonsense words and confusing him.”

“Please. He’ll speak when he’s ready,” Ayaan dismissed an aunt’s guilty worries. Dadi said the same thing and he’d rather trust Dadi’s instincts over Mona Darling’s or his wife’s.

He’d tease Zoya too: “I thought you claimed to be a warrior not a worrier! Kahan gayee warrior sahiba?”

“Hey, once a warrior always a warrior! But still … what if he’s late—”

“Don’t worry, he’s Chachu ka champ!”

“That’s exactly why Aapi’s worried,” Humaira teased him and winked at Zoya.

“Humaira begum, your General Jeeju has spoiled you way too much!”

“That’s what Jeejus are made for! Those are the cosmic rules, Ayaan. RTFM!”

“What did you say to me? What did you just—” He chased her down with Zaid Miyan riding on his shoulders. Zaid’s tummy hurt again from laughing so much as he bounced up and down.

The grandparents smiled at that combination giggling and cooing. What a sound that was. Bells in a temple or the breeze of a Sufi Dervish’s dhikr.

“Ayaaaan!”

Ayaan halted at the panic in that voice.

“Haye mera bachcha!” Raziya fussed and charged at him. “Put him down! All this running around—you’ll bump into something … What if Zaid gets hurt? Main bolungi toh bologe ki bolti hai …”

She rushed to grab Zaid away from his careless Chachu. And she checked him for bumps and bruises worriedly massaging his back. Zaid patted her cheeks and babbled. She wiped his chin with her dupatta unable to resist kissing him.

Everyone snickered.

Ayaan sighed. He could never catch a break. His mother-in-law still treated him like the bratty prodigal son. All the hyped up damad-respect and bhav went to Bhaijaan.

Here he was just ghar ki murgi. Plain old dal and roti.

But Bhaijaan was all Shahi Toast and Murg Mussalam.

Ayaan grinned shamelessly at Raziya. It was awesome! Two or three years ago he wouldn’t have imagined this possible. But today?

Today it was as it should be.

“Zaid’s a tiger,” he reminded his mother-in-law. “He’s my babbar sher! ARRGGH,” he roared.

Zaid clapped his hands. “AAARRR,” he agreed.

“Aur issi baat pe ek sher …” Ayaan continued.

Groans and sighs rose around him. Shireen would have been offended but she was too busy these days preparing for the US trip—making lists, shopping, bugging anyone who would listen to enquire about airline baggage weight limits.

“Arz kiya hai—”

Hurriedly Raziya dumped Zaid in his Chachu’s arms—it stopped all the shayari. Thank you Allah miyan!

Chacha bhatija zoomed off—ghodon pe savaar. Their plan had worked as they knew it would.

Dobby tucked himself tighter under Siddiqui Saheb’s chair. There was so much napping to catch up on. His stomach rumbled. He eyed the biscuit in Dadi’s hand and watched her dunk it in her tea.

He sighed.

No worries. A quick trip to the kitchen just as everyone rose to leave would keep him going till they got home. Wajid always saved a treat for him as he pretended to shoo the cat. 

 

Asad couldn’t believe he was having this conversation again. Though he should have known that it would come back to haunt him.

“Everyone’s going,” Zoya informed him very reluctantly. A part of her wanted to go too. So bad. But—

This time Asad knew it would be harder to say no. But this time there was also Zaid to think of.

“Please, Mr. Khan. New York isn’t some third world country!”

And there it was. That same argument.

“But the plane ride …”

“The whole family will be there!”

“Not me! I can’t afford to go what with all the issues at work!”

Zoya sighed. She knew he’d say that. She slipped her arms up his chest from behind saying nothing. Zoya leaned her head against his back.

Asad lifted her palm off his heart and kissed it in defeat.

All these days he knew this day would come.

And he still hated it.

The tickets were being finalized. She dithered, wanting to go … to stay.

“You go,” he murmured. “As much as I wish I could, I can’t.”

She knew that too. She wouldn’t even ask him to consider it. Things really hadn’t settled down at work. Everyone still walked on eggshells. New worries still poked the fires of the old. Uncertainty lurked and mushroomed. Would the project fold? What would the fallout be? Would there be lawsuits and stay orders?

There were queasy rumblings and uneasy rustlings. And they seemed to get louder with each passing day. A dharna last week. Protests by local farmers against illegal land acquisitions yesterday. Legal notices were dogging them. But they’d got all the permits and clearances, then why—

“It’s like being in a sniper’s cross-hairs,” Zoya had muttered one night. Asad just nodded. It drove her crazy. Not being able to do anything about it drove her crazier.

It all made very little sense. But it made very big dents. Had it been in the US, they’d’ve been talking layoffs, downsizing ... But Asad wouldn’t even—

She couldn’t keep up with the research on the shady happenings. And she couldn’t leave him in the middle of a fight. Because these guys were fighting dirty. New groups and fronts kept changing guard every day. Of course all these efforts were co-ordinated! It had to be. But they still had no answers for that one question: why? Or the second one: who? It felt like a conspiracy—but that stuff happened in films and bad shows.

 

She had tried unorthodox means to bust the conspiracy—and hidden them from Asad. For now. It was on a need to know basis only. He didn’t need to know. Because, of course he would kill her. When she had concrete results she’d tell him. He had enough on his plate.

In the process of hiring and recruiting for the factory she’d made friends with some of the transwomen in the Kinnar community. Ever since she’d seen them perform and negotiate at the house the day after they brought Zaid home from the hospital, her curiosity about the community had deepened. They’d even offered employment opportunities and quotas at the factory.

Zoya loved their attitude—they were bold and sassy. No one dared mess with them. They always spoke up loud and clear—silence was not an option. They even joked that making dolls was the perfect symbol—without overt private parts every doll was a Kinnar, wasn’t it? They’d hooted and slapped their thighs at this. The other women had covered their faces, giggled, and gone, “haaw!” And every doll was meant to show empowered girls and women—that was part of a brash Kinnar manifesto too, wasn’t it?

It was a win-win. Some of them were even teaching the other women how to walk and strut so that if they were mistaken for being a Hijra on the street, no one would bother them.

Zoya was really pleased with the modest advances they’d made at the factory. It was so cool that she was getting to put into practice every idea of empowerment and progress she’d ever imagined. They were still not completely breaking even but hey, so what if the experiment failed? They’d still have some great victories to show for it.

After initial threats by some local gangs they’d begun self-defense and yoga classes for the women in the mornings. And surprisingly that had been Asad’s idea. He’d said something about women needing physical confidence and knowing the power of their bodies. Women worked with their hands, walked miles for their families, went through the pain of childbirth—if only they knew that these same things—hands, elbows, knees, heels, fingers—could be weapons. She’d been so proud of her Jahanpanah that day. And of course Humaira was put in charge of teaching the workers how to S-I-N-G-H.

And the idea of dipping into a strengthening information network had come from the Kinnars. In order to protect themselves they already crowdsourced Whatsapp alerts to let their people know about safe and unsafe zones or where to assemble for protests. Like the app Safecity.in they too mapped areas in the city to show violence targets and triggers against members of their community.

Zoya and Humaira had asked the workers to keep their ears and eyes open and report on any chatter they heard about the recent hijackings of construction materials at some sites or dharnas and protests at others. The Hijra community had diversified their income sources—they didn’t just appear at doorsteps to celebrate weddings and births, but they also gatecrashed groundbreaking ceremonies at construction sites.

Thanks to some of their workers information did start to trickle in: they found out that the protesters at the recent dharnas at one of Asad’s company sites had been trucked in from neighboring villages at least a 100 miles away. They’d been handed banners and signs, and promised a daily wage and a meal. But they didn’t know any names of the organizers.

Rakesh’s team had filmed all the protests—the same faces kept showing up in many screen grabs. This was a flourishing business it seemed—protesters for hire, a rent-a-crowd scheme to create a staged ruckus. They were still trying to work their way into finding out about who hired them. It was slow going though. Apparently there were many such outfits and each was pretty cagey about any details leaking out. They had hired goons and security personnel—not something they wanted to mess with at this point. Besides, if Asad found out he’d— 

 

She sighed.

“Then I’m not going either,” Zoya announced. “I’d feel too bad leaving you behind to face this—this stupid mess that we can’t seem to pin down. I feel so useless!”

Asad tugged her by her arm to turn and face him. “Babe, not on my account. In fact I need you to go.”

Zoya’s eyes rounded; her forehead scrunched up as she got ready to protest and argue with him. He held her face in his hands.

“Right now at least they aren’t targeting the family and the house. I’m worried … At least this way I’ll have one less worry.”

“But—”

“No buts. It kills me to say it, but just go. I’ll breathe easier knowing you all are far away from this madness, and safe.”

Zoya touched his face. He was right. It was killing him. To be away from Zaid for the first time. He didn’t say it but they both knew that if Zaid didn’t begin to crawl in the next few weeks then Asad would probably miss that because it would happen in New York.

Asad kissed the corner of her mouth. “Though how I’ll breathe with you gone, I don’t know.”

“Asad, don’t—!”

“I mean it.”

That tightness he’d felt in his chest all those lonely … loveless days nearly two years ago, returned.

Recalled belts of fire lashed his rib cage again. She was going to leave for New York even then. That night too he had stared into a dark moonless sky. A million stars had looked on and heckled him for his self-censoring. They had booed. "Won't have the guts," they taunted.

And it had wrenched something lose in him. 

“Mat jao, Zoya,” he’d recorded—inadvertently, unintentionally that night.

But had it really been the stars’ doing? Undoing rather.

Asad gathered her to him now. Tight. Tighter than any bands of starry bleakness that could have scorched or strangled him that night. 

He gave thanks.

Stars. What did they know? What did they know about love reaching up to pluck them from a smug sky and flinging them to the ground? Did they know of that thing called love that could realign planets and tilt planetary axes? That in human hands those mocking stars could be rubble? Fallen beams that created craters on the bedrock—punchdrunk stars cracking open scars on the surface of the earth?

Asad smiled. His fingers and thumb traced the galaxy of scars down her arm. His remembering fingertips re-scanned them onto his heart. She was the shooting star, he the astrobleme—the star wound on the earth. (Her science nerdtalk was obviously rubbing off on him. She’d just told him about this word some weeks ago. “Such a cool word, no?” she’d gushed.) 

“Don’t worry, I won’t say ‘mat jao, Zoya’ this time around,” he murmured into her hair.

A soft gasp escaped her lips; her eyes stung.

“I want you to go. I never want to hold you back. The last time I had to say it because I couldn’t live without you. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t let you walk away and never see you again. I would burst if I didn’t say it. The pain was too great. But now? Two weeks? Three? It’s nothing. I’ll live. I’ll survive.” 

“Asad, you’re killing me, you know that right?” Zoya cried. “How can you say something so tragic and so romantic at the same time? And why are we acting as if this is the end of our love story? You’re scaring me …”

He chuckled. “But that’s what I’m trying to tell you—there’re no fears any more. No more pain. And no ending of our love story. Ever. We may be miles apart, sleep in lonely beds continents away—”

Oh god, this man was so going to kill her. She had to shut him up before she became a soggy, sobby mess because her Akdu had suddenly become a romantic oracle.

“Allah miyan, what’s wrong with you, Mr. Khan! If you mention miles and oceans and lonely beds one more time, I swear to god I am going on a se*x fast!” 


Yup. She knew that would do it. Akdu needed his scr*ews tightened. A good scr*ew was all he needed.

His soft laugh was balm. Asad kissed her hand.

He wanted to say it; he didn’t. I’ll miss you.

“I’ll miss you so much,” Zoya whispered.

Tell me about it. Asad squeezed his eyes shut. Damn.

“Oceans? I never said anything about oceans,” Asad kidded once he’d regained his breath after the initial threat of a forced virginity ka vrat. He didn't want them to be sad.

“Talk of continents means oceans!” Zoya snapped.

“In which Atlas? Who decided this?” he teased.

“Shut up Mr. Khan, shut up right now!”




“Thank god!” Najma giggled. She made faces at Zaid in his mother’s lap. They were FaceTiming and her nephew wanted to hold the phone. How she wished she could reach out and touch him!

Zaid grinned her her, his eyes crinkling and twinkling. He recognized his Najma Phuphi now. And Omar Phupha! And he even faceTimed with his other Phuphi and Phupha. But Faiz Phupha was the coolest! He always bumped fists with him. Why didn’t these people and Nana and Nani hold him? Did they all have to live in Ammi’s phone? Was it like being in a crib? AmmiAbbu put them in the phone?

He patted the screen. Come out and play!

“Aww, hi mera baby!” Najma moaned in longing.

She continued talking to Zoya even as she made kissy faces at her nephew. “No really, I’m so lucky that no one’s bugging me about babies. Omar’s mom says it’s our decision—she’s in no rush to be a Dadi. Go out, have fun, she says. Isn’t that so cool?”

“It sure is,” Zoya answered. “But why were you even worried about in the first place? Of course it’s your decision. Who else would decide?”

“Please, Zoya! You grew up here so you don’t know how typical mother-in-laws will hint or openly demand a grandchild.” She shuddered. She knew. She’d seen friends and cousins being blackmailed daily. If the good news didn’t come in the first year then it was the, “doctor ko dikhana padega,” threat.

“What?” Zoya couldn’t believe it. But then she didn’t need to. Her mother-in-law wasn’t like that either. Not that she and Mr. Khan had given Ammi reason to complain! But was Humaira feeling the pressure? She hadn’t said anything but ...

“But Tamatar, things are changing. May be in smaller towns and villages that might be the case. But girls are more independent now—”

“Zoya, you know nothing yaar!” Najma went on. “Indian women will happily tell you when it’s time for baby number one and even baby number two!”

How embarrassing.

“But not younger women, surely!”

“Everyone! Younger ones will say ‘it’s time for me to be khala or phuphi.’ I have a friend here and she was telling me that her little cousin used to ask her this all the time and then she got married herself.”

“And then all the women in the family started bugging her!”

“Exactly! And there were some fertility issues so it got really bad for her, poor thing. She called up my friend nearly in tears. She said, ‘didi, I’m so sorry for being the annoying cousin who pestered you to be pregnant. I had no right.”

“Aww. That’s so sweet of her to realize it. We’re lucky aren’t we? That’s so embarrassing. I can’t believe people will talk about something so private so openly.”

“Oh god, at shaadis and functions, they are waiting to pounce on you—when will you give us good news, they’ll say?” Najma’s eyes narrowed. “Do you remember that horrible witch, Haseena bi? Thank god, Nikhat was saved from her! Can you imagine the kind of mother-in-law her type must be?”

The sister-in-laws shuddered. Khuda na kare! God, they hoped for the sake of all Indian girls that that woman’s sons would never get married.

“You know, there’s a special place in hell for those women who trouble other women,” Zoya snapped. Even thinking of Haseena bi made her mad.

“Amen! I swear, the Haseena bis of the world deserve that special place and the Tanveers of the world to be their bahus,” Najma joked.

“Truth! So many lives would be saved!” Zoya laughed and each of them raised their eyes and free hands in prayer. Man, they were so lucky!  

Zaid fussed. Najma Phuphi wasn’t playing with him any more. He wanted to be set free. Zoya laid him on the bed where he flipped over and sat up the next instant. Zoya gave him his red guitar and moved out of his way to watch from the settee. He banged on it. Dobby hid under the bed.

“He loves his guitar, doesn’t he?” Najma had to raise her voice to be heard. Zoya had flipped the camera display so Najma could see what her favorite nephew was doing.

“Oh, yes.”

“What happened, Zoya? Why are you so quiet? Is everything OK? Did you have a fight with Bhaijaan?”

“No. But he’s been acting moody ever since—”

“Ever since you decided to come here for a visit with the family?”

“Hmm.”

“Najma sighed. “You know Omar was the same when he had to leave. But I’m sure Bhai understands that you haven’t been here for over two years—you deserve a comeback!”

“He gets it, it’s just that—” Zoya made a face.

“I don’t have to be happy about it,” Asad had growled the other day.

“It’s just that he’ll miss you both and be totally miserable. Awww!”

Zoya smiled. “He hasn’t said it, but I know he’s worried that he’ll miss Zaid crawling. Or speaking.” She told Tamatar about Zaid’s recent attempts at saying Abbu and Ammi. They'd already shared the video Dilshad had made. 

Najma tsked. She wished she could do something to help her two favorite people out. “He’s refusing to come, right? Typical Bhaijaan!”

Zoya nodded. “Yeah, typical Akdu.”

“I wish he’d come too. I’m so happy that everyone’s coming! It’ll be so awesome to have Ammi here. If only Bhaijaan would come too!”

Zoya sniffed. She wished the same.

“C’mon Zoya! May be you can do some magic or pull some trick—how long has it been since you’ve pranked Bhaijaan?”

Zoya’s eyes shone. Her spine stiffened. Why hadn’t she thought of it! That trip to Britain to watch a cricket match had been a washout thanks to that bit*ch Tanveer and her daily soap wala horror show … May be she could really take her Jahanpanah on an overseas trip after all? But she didn’t want to trick or scare him into coming—that would not be cool.

“ZOYA!” Najma’s shriek startled her.

“Wha—-?”

“Look! He just crawled!”

Zoya’s head snapped to watch Zaid. Crawled? But he was just sitting and playing …

“No seriously, he moved an inch or two,” Najma was desperate to prove that she hadn’t imagined it. So awesome, she actually saw him move! She was the first.

And then Zaid scooted another couple of inches and Zoya shrieked too this time. She fumbled with her phone forgetting what to tap to set it to recording.

Dilshad came barreling into the room in alarm. “Kya hua? Sab theek hai? Zaid?”

“Ammmmiii! He moved!” 

“He crawled? Sach mein?” Dilshad asked in delight looking at her grandson and wanting to scoop him up in her arms. But then how would she see him crawl?

“Well, it wasn’t a crawl exactly, just his butt and legs …”

And then Zaid did the crab-like scooting again. Look mom, no hands. Just his legs powering his butt forward.

He looked at Dadi and Ammi when they squealed. Then Dadi was scolding Ammi when Ammi grabbed Dadi’s phone.

“Beta, stop worrying about recording this. Just watch and savor it. Do you think we had phone cameras to record the kid’s crawl or take their first step? Put it away, just slow down, breathe and watch!”

Watch what? Zaid wanted to know. He looked at them and waved his arms. Hello? Tell meeeeeeee.

“Do it again,” his mom said as she knelt by the bed and clasped her hands. Najma Phuphi begged too.

He played a song for them on his guitar. He frowned when his Ammi didn’t clap.

Zoya opened her arms to him. “Come, come to mama.”

Zaid looked at her and raised his arms. Pick me, he telegraphed.

“No, you come to me,” Ammi said.

Zaid pouted. She always picked him up when he asked. Why wasn’t she doing it now? He looked at Dadi and raised his arms. She held out hers and said the same thing, “Aaja mera bachcha, come!”

“Aaa bbbaaa naaaa doooo mmaaa!” Zaid flapped his arms in annoyance. His face got scrunchy and his—

“Come on munna, come to Ammi,” Zoya cooed at him.

“Come on baby, you can do it,” Najma Phuphi crooned.

Zaid smiled. He put his palms down and dragged himself forward. He hadn’t figured out that he could use his knees as yet. But he didn’t even have time to realize what he’d done. Because both his Ammi and Dadi went crazy right then. He could hear Phuphi yippeeing from her phone home.

There were so many “Oh my gods!” and “Allahs!” around him as he was swept up in the air. He clapped because obviously something big had happened. He just wished that someone would tell him what was going on.

No matter. He would ask Abbu. He was the only guy who explained things to him quietly and patiently. Abbu always looked deep into his eyes and that was when Zaid stilled and really paid attention.

Abbu would tell him everything. And everything would be all right.

Because Aal iz well, like Ammi sang.

“Aaaa lllaaa azzzz waaa,” he said. But no one understood him. Hmmpphh. 

La mya, wutz rong wi dem!



Song in title:

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010): "Pee Loon"


*I have mentioned the app Safety.in in my FF before (post-Taj honeymoon fight scene)please visit their site and help contribute to make your cities safer for women. 


PS. I'd like to thank MayurChan for reminding me about Asad's pledge to read to their kids. 







May 9, 2016

Tu Kahe To Khwabon Ka Bana Ke Main Bahana Mila Karoon Sirhane Pe (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 7 times)



Chapter 125

  

She had been mad at him. It was one of those typical Miyan-Biwi nok-jhonk that went a bit south thanks to those daily work-versus-home clashes. Add the stress of a not-so-anticipated long trip ... the trauma of an oncoming lambi judaii—it was a spark waiting to flare into a forest fire. 

And this after they’d promised each other that they wouldn’t be those typical spouses who fought about stupid, incredibly foolish things.

“You’ve been coming home late every day this week and the last—” OK, may be she had sounded a bit naggy. But could he blame her? All these nights Zoya had seen him come in exhausted and grouchy. Why couldn’t he see what he was doing to himself? And her. 

“You know I can’t help it.” 

“But we’ll be leaving soon and I …” 

“Zoya, stop holding that over my head. You think I don’t know that?” 

“If things are so bad then may be we shouldn’t go.” 

“Obviously I don’t mean that! You should go. Everyone’s going. Najma and Nikhat are looking forward to this. So’s Ammi and everyone else.”

“But I don’t want to leave you like this! You’re under so much pressure and not taking care of yourself.”

“Get used to it, Zoya! This isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last that I’ll be under pressure,” he’d growled and slammed the dresser drawer more violently than he’d intended. 

And that’s when Asad had known that he’d pushed too far. Her lips had thinned and she’d turned away from him. 

“Zoya?”

She said nothing. It wasn’t that they were shouting at each other. Zaid was fast asleep so they’d kept their voices down. But they may as well have been shouting. 

Zoya slipped out of the room to heat up his dinner. 

She said nothing the next day either.

At work the next day Asad got swept up in new Catch-22s. A materials stoppage, an absconding vendor, and more whats-its and what-nots forecasted a ball-busting day ahead.

He’d left home fully intending to order flowers for Zoya but that slid right out of his mind as phones started buzzing. He skipped lunch and by mid-afternoon a dull headache blazed. 

Zoya worried when she didn’t hear from him all day. Was he still upset with her? Because she wasn’t talking to him she was getting office updates from Humaira who was getting them from Ayaan.

She felt terrible when she heard about the missed lunch. Zoya knew he’d have a headache by now. 

“Please eat something,” she texted him. “I love you,” she added after a second. Her thumbs hovered over the screen. “I’m sorry for last night. I miss you.”

When he hadn’t responded even two hours later a dark bud bloomed in her. She see-sawed between guilt and anger. Why was he doing this? Didn’t he know how both she and Ammi would fret if he carried on like this? Didn’t he know that both of them would hate leaving him like this?

Of course he knew! Then why—

Why wouldn’t he let her help him? Why wouldn’t he back down from the project? He wasn’t superman. Why play the hero? There was no shame in backing away to regroup for another day.

Zoya sighed. This really was putting a damper on the trip. She wished to god that this trip would never happen. 

She’d sent over juice, cut fruit and sandwiches with the driver. An hour later she’d found out from Prasad that yes, sir had eaten.

But she never heard back from Asad for the rest of the day. Or evening.   

It was past 10 o’clock and Asad still wasn’t home. When he crashed through the door almost an hour later she rose from the dining table to greet him. She shut her laptop and felt a pang for all her angry thoughts. He looked almost gaunt—the cheekbones even more defined, lips compressed in a grim line. That pulse in his forehead vaulting—

Asad stared at her from across the room and she stilled.

She wasn’t sure if he even saw her. It was only when he advanced toward her, shedding the computer bag and tie along the way, that she knew. She'd seen that panther-like focus before. Zoya went to the fridge to pour him a glass of chilled water to delay him. Snatching the glass from her hand he emptied the contents in one gulp. Before she could react he had her pinned against the fridge.

“Asad?” 

His eyes intent on hers he slowly undid her shirt buttons. Zoya’s eyes widened in panic. The kitchen lights were on. Ammi had gone up almost half hour ago but what if she came down? Her hands closed over his.

He shook them off and moved on to the snap of her jeans. 

“Asad, please! Not here, not like this!”

But he’d already yanked her jeans down to her ankles and was kneeling in front of her. Zoya swallowed a moan as she felt his fingers push her panties to the side and his hot tongue slid in. She pressed her knuckles to her mouth even as her other hand gripped his hair.

She wiggled, his mouth trapping her. 

“Asad, oh god!” she whispered as she felt the org*asm hover and mount. That soon? How was that possible— 

Her hands gripped the top of the fridge door behind her. She tried her hardest to bite off those soft moans and gasps.

He rubbed and stroked her crazy and in no time her hips bucked wildly. Asad’s hands steadied her and pressed her harder against the cool steel even as he teased her wetter still from another angle.

Zoya bit down on her lip to keep from keening and waking up the whole household. Or neighborhood.

Oh god, she’d never felt such a rocky climax implode and pulse through her before. 

“Asad,” she breathed. “Asad … Asad …”

She didn’t know whether it was the fact that he was ravaging her in the brightly-lit kitchen and that they were inches away from being caught, or that her silence was making her nerves scream … or even that this was the roughness of make-up se*x that her body was begging for.

She’d hardly recovered from the dizziness of the second spell when Asad had her bent over the counter. He’d already pushed her panties down and unsheathed himself. When he entered her she gasped. But even before he entered her he parried at her with shallow brushes and thrusts that threatened to make her go wild all over again. 

“Please,” she whispered. 

“Please what?” he asked through gritted teeth. His tip side-swiped her again and her hands slapped on the cool counter.

“Please, take me! Hurry!” Her butt writhed against him. “Don’t torment me, Asad please …” 

A harsh breath whooshed out of him. His hands cupped and kneaded her bre*asts as he moved inside her. But this didn’t give him enough leverage. He gripped her hip, his knuckles white against her skin. She’d be bruised there tomorrow for sure.

His flesh slapped against hers.

Oh god. What if Ammi heard them? Fear and desire collided within her. Pleasure won out. It ribboned and exploded from her clamping him in its wake. Asad’s hips bucked too as shuddered and grunted softly. He too was trying to be as soundless as possible. But that wasn’t possible. 

“Zoya!” he couldn’t stop himself as he threw his head back and jerked against her.

 

Later in bed Asad pulled her to him. “I’m sorry for being such a bear. Forgive me?” 

“Umm hmm,” she kissed his neck and shoulder. After that scorching kitchen counter encounter she didn’t even remember what it was they’d been mad about. Zoya giggled at her own punning skills.

“What?” Asad asked. He was nibbling on each fingertip of hers. Still too wired to sleep.

Shaking his mouth off she slid her hands under his kurta. “May be it’s not such a bad thing that you come home late.” 

Asad chuckled.

“But only once in a while, not everyday!” She began her own revenge-nibbling.

 

“Humaira, does anyone, like … bug you about having a baby?” Zoya asked her sister tentatively the other day. 

Humaira laughed and Zoya’s worries fled. That was a good sound, thank you Allah miyan!

“Who has the time, Aapi! Ayaan’s Ammi and Abbu are chill and I’m surprised Dadi hasn’t brought it up either.” 

“And Aunty and Abbu?” 

“Please,” Humaira rolled her eyes talking about her mother. “Ammi can’t get past making lists of what to do for Zaid. It’s all about Zaid this, and Zaidu that.”

Zoya giggled. They all knew that Raziya called Zaid Zaidu when she was alone with the baby. And oh boy, the rate at which tiny clothes were being knitted, bought and sown for her son, the Khan siblings better start having babies soon or they’d have to rent out a storage unit for all the mini jumpers and booties and topis and chhadis soon. For a munchkin who couldn’t even walk as yet, Zaid probably had more shoes than his mom.

“And when Ammi does take a breath,” Humaira continued, “the next thing out of her mouth is, ‘what’ll Zoya say? What will Zoya do? Will she like this? How about that?’ ” 

Zoya sniggered. Truth! Aunty did seem to have a one-track mind these days. OK, one and a half. And when in the Siddiqui house, Raziya and Zaid were as inseparable as Zaid and his Chachu. In fact there was an invisible tug of war between mother- and son-in-law over who’d spend more time with Zaid and who the kid loved more. When Zoya came to her dad’s house, she pretty much remained clueless about where Zaid was or what he was up to. Once she was done feeding him she hardly saw him. If he wasn’t somewhere gallavanting about with his Chachu, he was probably being fussed over by his Chhoti Nani. 

“And Abbu? He’s just too happy and content to ask for anything else.”

“Hey, does that make you jealous?” New worries assailed Zoya. It must feel weird to go from being an only child to suddenly be the second child. Zoya loved the attention but what if Humaira resented it? She had heard enough about sibling rivalry— 

“What? That everyone worships and fights over Zaid? Nah! It takes the pressure off me. Zaid ka lakh lakh shukar hai!” Humaira bumped shoulders with her sister. “And I love having the world’s best Aapi, so relax!”

“But you guys aren’t thinking about having kids right now?” 

Humaira sighed. And then she giggled. “Honestly, I don’t think anyone’s in a hurry to see Ayaan as a dad. Dadi says he’s got a lot of growing up to do himself!”

“Abhi Zaid pe practice karne do,” Rashid had said once when he’d seen his younger son bump into a servant carrying a tray of food and watched its contents go flying.

But truth be told, both Rashid and Siddiqui Saheb wanted their oldest kids to have everything that they’d missed out as children because of their dads’ dark cowardice. No one was in a hurry to supplant Asad and Zoya’s rightful haq to being the center of attention this time around.

And then what was the rush, really?

In Zaid they had found full redemption. Every day with him was god’s grace, every smile heaven’s mercy.  

“Aww, bechara Raaburt,” Zoya sighed. 

“Come on, Aapi, he’s no bechara and you know it. Wait!” she cried. “I just remembered.” 

Humaira pulled out her phone. She’d updated her device but saved that old photo of Ayaan’s where he was bent over and struggling to be a murga to beg for her forgiveness. It was a momento from the night he’d come to woo her back and it was a trophy of her own resurgent spirit when she’d learned to love and be herself. 

“Now, does this look like a bechara to you?”

“Haaaw!” 

The girls hooted and high-fived.

“Hey girls, enough with your khee-khee, kha-kha nonsense,” Ayaan popped up from behind and they laughed harder.

“It’s not khee-khee, kha-kha nonsense, Raaburt. It’s haha-heehee therapy. And it’s good for a woman’s soul.” 

“What were you laughing at?” He frowned at them. He had a sneaking suspicion they were making fun of him. Why did Humaira suddenly hide her phone and dismiss a screen?

They were sitting on the swing outside. He pushed it hard and they squealed.

“Tell me!”

“See?” Humaira said to her sister.

Zoya grinned. “Yeah, he totally needs a lot more practice and growing up. He sounds exactly like Zaidu right now!”

“Speaking of …” Humaira snorted as she saw her mother walk towards them with Zaid in her arms.

“Oh god,” Zoya groaned softly. “Here comes ghee-badam ki stinky dukan.” 

“Kya hua?” Raziya frowned at her daughter and son-in-law who were laughing madly. 

“Ammi, woh actually …”

“Hmmphh,” she dismissed the feeble attmepts at the familiar non-explanation. “Yeh lo, he’s hungry,” she handed Zaid over to his mom and tucked Zoya’s hair absently behind an ear after dropping a kiss on her forehead.

Raziya turned to walk away. 

“Hell—lo?” Humaira complained. “I’m also here.” 

“What?” Raziya looked at her in confusion as she remembered to swipe Zaid’s chin with a duppatta.

“What about my kiss?”

“Hain? Kya keh rahi ho?”

“Oh forget it, Ammi! You only care about Aapi and Zaid! The rest of us are ghar ki murgis and gaajar-mooli for you.” 

Ayaan nodded his head in vigorous agreement. Yeah, and don’t forget Bhai! Everyone saw how Mumani treated her older daamad like some shehenshah royalty.   

“Aunty, I think Humaira also needs ghee-badam ki maalish on her head. She’s obviously losing her mind! Or she’s hungry … like Zaid.” 

“Aapi!”

 

Humaira had resisted going on the big, grand, once-in-a-lifetime Khan trip to the US.

“No, you all go. I’ll stay back and look after Jeeju.” And Ayaan. But even Ayaan knew that when it came to his Bhaijaan, his wife and mother-in-law had their priorities straight.

“Shut up, you’re coming." 

“But Aapi—” 

Zoya had held up a firm hand. “Don’t even—” If Humaira wasn’t going then she wasn’t going either. As simple as that. 

Humaira’s smile had slipped and Zoya hugged her. She knew exactly how the girl felt. A part of her hated going too. “You’ve shared all your toys and books and school stuff from when you were a kid, with me.” 

She’d spent hours in Humaira’s room poring over her kid sister’s childhood pictures and treasures.  “I want to do the same. I want you to check out my stuff, hang out with my friends, go to my favorite places. I’ll show you the school I went to, where I played soccer … C’mon Humairiya, when else will we ever get the chance to just be sisters without our husbands? In freakin’ New York!!!” 

Humaira had laughed. Exactly. When?

“Please,” Zoya said. “If I have to go without my husband then you have to go with me in sympathy!” 

“As punishment?” 

“No silly, as solidarity. It’s sisterhood! Hey, may be you can wear jeans there! We’ll be the sisterhood of the travelling pants!” 

Humaira’s eyes rounded like her nephew’s. Jeans and her? She bet Ayaan would love the idea though! Should she? She knew that both Najma and Nikhat wore western clothes in the US. She’d seen pictures on Facebook. Even Nikhat Baaji?

 

The bags were packed for tonight’s flight. Dobby had circled and sniffed and circled them a thousand times by now. He’d even sat on them to test their napability. But he got off in a huff.

Something was up.

And he was dead sure that whatever it was he was not going to like it. In blind wild fury he arched and rubbed himself against the bags—if they weren’t going to tell him what was up he was going to leave his scent all over these namakool things.

“Dobby!” Zoya scolded half-heartedly. “You’ll go bald. Stop it!” 

He ignored her. He was mad at her.

And for once, he sensed that Asad was on his side. 

 

She kept waiting for Asad for say, “mat jao, Zoya.” But as he’d promised, he never did. That morning she put her foot down. Grabbing his collar she whinnied in protest. “Asad, just once, say it and I won’t go. I just can’t.” 

He rested his forehead against hers. “Stop making this worse than it has to be. The sooner you go the sooner you’ll be back.” For him the countdown had already begun.

Zoya twisted away from him in tears and stared out of the window, scowling at the morning sun.

Asad wrapped his arms around her. Head bowed she burst into tears.

“Shh, it’ll be OK. We’ll survive this. See, I even took the day off to be with both of you.”

“That was only because you knew I’d kill you if you didn’t,” Zoya cried. “How could you even think of not taking the day off?”

Because that was the only way to keep my mind from turning into mush, Asad thought. His heart sank to his feet each morning when he woke up these days. They’d be leaving in twelve days. Eleven.

Ten …

On and on it counted down on a futile treadmill. He’d kept silent through the excited lists and shopping, planning and gift-stocking. He hated himself for feeling cranky. But he hated their excitement more. 

Only one thing had kept him from flying off the rails.

Thank god, he’d gotten to see Zaid crawl or he’d have done some serious damage.

And thank god he’d been the first one to see it—that had been the biggest coup. The best prize of all. 

Just last week he’d walked in the front door and seen Zaid playing on the living room rug. Ammi was in the kitchen and Zoya leaning against the couch glued to her iPad. She hadn’t even seen or heard him enter.

But Zaid had. And as Asad held out his arms Zaid crawled right up to him as if he was doing this everyday.

“Zaid, mera cheetah!” he’d yelled. “You’re crawling!”

Zoya had come alive then. “What? Wait, I didn’t see. Not fair!” 

Dilshad came running and squealing from the kitchen. “Kya hua?”

Asad had already swept his son up in his arms by then. Abbu and son were spinning in circles. 

“Ammi, he crawled right up to me!” Once again Asad couldn’t contain his excitement. 

“Mr. Khan, put him down! I want to see,” Zoya hung on to Asad’s sleeve. 

Asad reluctantly put the baby down on the rug. He didn’t want Zoya to be upset about missing this milestone like the last one.  

They backed up as Zoya stood by his side and together they called out to Zaid. 

“Come baby, come to Abbu,” Zoya cooed softly. 

And he did. Straight as an arrow. No more clumsy attempts or bellyflops this time. By now he’d mastered the rhythm of holding his tiny body up and using his palms and knees to power him forward. By now he’d gathered speed and precision with practice.

But did he know that he was part of his Ammi’s and Dadi’s plot to trick his Abbu?

No idea.

But he’d seen his mom squeal when she heard Abbu’s car door slam outside. She’d picked up her iPad and pretended to be buried in it—weird, just a second ago she was playing patty cake with him. And Dadi too had rushed to the kitchen as though something was burning on the stove.

So sneaky they were. But then Abbu had walked in and Zaid wanted to show him how fast he could move. Like a cheetah.

Abbu went crazy. He hollered and yeehawed like a cowboy.

Just like the last time when Zaid had said Dabbu. Once again Dadi had put kala teeka behind his ear, and Ammi had kissed him on both his cheeks. Would they do this every time he moved or said something?

Then Dobby climbed up on Abbu’s shoulder … and Zaid touched his own eye and put a kala teeka on his furry buddy.

 

Zoya sighed as she monitored her son on one of his in-flight patrols. She’d lost count of how many times she’d done this. Had Asad been here he’d have either killed her for letting his son crawl in the plane aisle or keeled over from a heart attack himself.

But what was she to do?

Traveling with a hyper-active baby was to already invite the glares of fellow passengers trapped in a metal capsule hurtling through the skies at hundreds of miles a minute.

And Zaid wasn’t one to sit quietly during a 14-hour flight. He needed his hourly romps. Now that he was crawling he needed his regular exploration trips. There were all kinds of surfaces to touch, vistas to survey, this thing to poke, and that thing to clutch. And his mom kept grabbing him under his arms to carry him away or point him in the opposite direction—and that too after all his hard work.

Indedly Folish. 

Sure, he had taken naps, been read and sung to, bounced on grandma laps, tickled and played with, but that took just eight hours. He had even seen all the videos of his Abbu singing to him, reading stories to him ... carrying him on his shoulders. Chachu had also starred in some of the videos.

But this made Zaid crankier.

Abbu and Chachu wouldn’t reach out and hold him. He couldn’t feel Chhoti Nani’s kisses or grab Nanu’s glasses. INDEDLY FOLISH.

So here Zoya was, spritzing hand sanitizer on his defiant hands every two seconds, being growled at by her infant son, and still following him about in the business-class cabin. Because if she didn’t he was this close to throwing a Jahanpanah-sized tantrum. 

Damn, damn, damn. This was so unfair.

She missed Asad so much.

Thank god she had the girls and the parents with her or she’d go stark raving mad.

Listless, she watched Zaid scoot and trundle ahead and make cooing sounds at the young girl in one of the seats—of course. Being a heartbreaker. Just like his daddy. Hard wired in his DNA, obviously. 

Aaannhh, Asad! Why couldn’t you be here?

Because TCB. Taking care of business.

Zoya pouted. Her eyes glazed remembering their steamy night action in the kitchen. A blush stained her cheeks. She’d never see the kitchen the same way again …

“Abbaaa baa buu,” Zaid gurgled. Zoya re-focused and bent to pick him up. 

Poor little guy. He was missing his Abbu too. In his mom’s arms he let his displeasure known as he fussed and lunged to be let down. Zaid was tired and fussy but resisted sleeping or being held.

Rashid motioned to Zoya from his seat.

“Humein de do. I’ll watch him.” 

Thank god! She dumped her son into her father-in-law’s arms. After slathering his hands with sanitizer again. Oh yes, between themselves, Jahanpanah and his chhota shehanshah would keep the industry afloat for years to come.

Zoya slumped back into her seat next to a dozing Humaira. From behind her she heard her Father-in-law softly tell Zaid stories about his Abbu as a little boy. She smiled and eavesdropped shamelessly. But she covered her reddened face the next second. 

“ … because Abbu had a new tooth. Just like Zaid. And he pushed it with his naughty tongue—this way and that way. Just like?”

“Zaaf!”

Zoya laughed softly at the name her son had christened himself with. But she sighed later missing that naughty tongue that went this way and that way. Oh god, Asad I miss you so bad!

“And Abbu’s Abbu told him: don’t do that. Your tooth will get mad and run away. But did he listen?” Zaid shook his head. “And then one day, what happened? The tooth ran away!" 

When Zoya turned back to check on them she saw Zaid clutching his Dadu’s finger and staring up into his face with saucer eyes.

He blinked once.

Aww.

3 - 2 - 1

He was out like a light.

With a sigh Zoya sat back too to catch a quick nap. Who knew when chota Jahanpanah would wake up and her 8th shift would start?

Rashid looked down at Zaid and smoothed the itty-bitty forehead. He used to tell Asad the same story—it went on to narrate a grand adventure of father and son on a quest to find the missing tooth that an evil sorcerer had stolen. On the way they encountered jinns and monsters, good samaritans and frenemies. 

Rashid wished his grandson had fought against sleep a little longer—he wanted to continue reliving memories of Asad as a baby. It was the only small comfort to wash away the swell of regret that still managed to choke him every now and then.

 

The nights were the worst.

But then he knew that, didn’t he?

No, that’s not true. He didn’t know how much worse they’d be.

Asad had given in to Ayaan and Raziya’s nagging to move to the Siddiqui house till everyone came back.

So he and Dobby had.

Zoya had begged him too. “I don’t want you wandering around in an empty house, not eating, or coming ridiculously late from work. At least do it for Dobby. He’ll go insane!”

But it was Siddiqui Saheb’s quiet words that had sealed the deal. He’d placed a hand on Asad’s shoulder. “Please, humein bahut sukoon milega. They are both really asking for themselves too.” He waved toward Raziya and Ayaan. “Having you with us will make us miss all of them a little less.”

When Asad nodded Ayaan had whooped. And then he broke into a sher and everyone grimaced. But it was a remarkably sensitive sher. Something about them all being wretched together … salting and pickling each other’s misery with tears. Something more about … jaanewale didn’t forget their bags and suitcases, “par phir bhi unka saamaan reh gaya.” 

Asad had groaned. 

… saamaan reh gaya … What had Zoya said when he’d gone for those two days to Hyderabad? 

          “That dimple of yours has gone into hiding, right?” he’d asked.

          "My dimple went to Hyderabad with you. It must be hiding somewhere in your bag.” 

Asad turned on his side on the abandoned bed. Yet again.

The shameless pillow next to his was too fluffed up and poufy; undented and pristine, it taunted him.

Asad punched it. It now had a fist-sized dent in it.

Good. 

No, you were wrong Siddiqui Saheb.

Nothing makes me miss them a little less.

He wished he was home.

At least at home he could’ve groaned and groused out loud.

He could’ve punched at his bag …. 

He did groan out loud when he remembered the last time they’d used the punching bag. Zoya had wanted to suddenly learn boxing …

          “Eyes up here, baby.”

          …

          "Asad! I wasn't done!"

          "Oh yes, you're done! I am too. Time for a break."

And what a break it had been. 

          "Oh god, Zoya! You drive me crazy, you know that, right?"

          "You're welcome!" 

Dobby mewled. He shuffled restlessly in his own bed and broke Asad’s reverie of misery.

Asad looked at Dobby, first in irritation, then in sympathy. Poor thing—Dobby had his own issues.

The cat wound around his legs more than usual now. That first night he’d sniffed Zoya’s side of the bed and peeped a billion times in the crib looking for his favorite people. He’d looked in all the rooms too.

But suddenly they were gone. Dadi too!

Only two questions remained for Dobby. These questions were like ballsy mice running around in his head and jeering him: 

1) Where had everybody gone? 

2) Why had they left him behind?

There was no baby chatter or a tiny hand yanking his tail these days. No table scr*aps. Nor did he hear shrieks of “Dobby, shoo! No food for you, you fat boy!”

That night Dobby had lunged at his Abbu and dug his claws in. 

“Ow! Dobby, stop it! What’s gotten into you?”

Never, ever leave me! Promise, he’d looked deep into Asad’s eyes. Bring them back! Right now. Why don’t you do something? They could be hurt! Remember that last time I had to save everyone’s butt? What if they never come back? 

MEORRRW?!

OK, so he had a lot more questions than two.

The cat raised his head and looked back at Asad in between licking his paws. Each sighed and looked away.

Asad re-punched his pillow and checked his watch for the thousandth time. They would still be on the flight. It was another five hours before they landed at JFK. Thank god, they’d been able to talk at the stopover in Frankfurt. 

He turned over with another grunt. 

“Missing us, Mr. Khan?”

A half-smile peeked.

The chime and tinkle of her voice speared his heart; it lifted him up; it ripped him apart. 

He could imagine how she’d say it too. “Missing us, Mr. Khan?” How her face would light up, how that saucy dimple would deepen and how that pouty mouth would … 

“ … so much … ” he replied.

He wished he could take those words back as soon as they were out. Because those words of his would wipe her smile away. Guilt and regret would shadow her face. 

“I’ll be fine,” he muttered into the dark.

Dobby stirred. Who was Abbu talking to? He hopped up on the bed and sniffed his face. Asad stroked his fur absently. Taking that as an invitation the lonely and confused cat plopped down on Asad’s chest and curled himself into a tight ball. 

Her smile would return slowly. Surely watching Dobby would get her to smile again. 

“Aww, is Dobby Miya-oon taking good care of you? I gave him special instructions to do so.” 

Asad strained his neck to look down at the cat. 

“Hmm … kind of. He’s missing you both … Like me.” Like crazy.

“Shh, close your eyes.”

He did. His eyes burned.

“What do you see?”

I see you.

I see you … like I saw you that first time at the dargah.

Asad felt just as hollowed out as he’d felt that first day when he’d opened his eyes and she hadn’t been there.

He dared not open his eyes now. She wouldn't be there.

Sh*it. May be he should have said, “mat jao, Zoya,” liked she’d asked. Then she wouldn’t have gone. She’d have stayed back for him.

“What do you see, Mr. Khan?”

I see you when I said goodbye at the airport twenty-two hours ago. 

Asad squeezed his eyes tighter to blot out the memory of a crying Zaid and his nearly teary mom. Zaid had sensed the coming separation and had stretched his arms toward his Abbu. Like Dobby he couldn’t understand what was happening and why. He too had questions that rattled around in his head. Zaid hollered in confusion. Fat tears rolled down those plump cheeks.

Zoya had almost caved in then.

And Asad had smiled and reassured them: it’ll be OK. You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Just a few days. We’ll chat and facetime every day. Who's a good boy who'll take care of his Ammi? The best and bravest in the whole wide world? You’ll have so much fun you won’t even think of me. Iloveyou. 

He had the unwanted job of pacifying two distraught souls before bidding them goodbye. Actually three. But who was counting. 

Bidding goodbye … how do you say bye to a part of you? Your hand. The crook of an elbow. Your chest where a head rested every night. Your shoulder that a tiny arm held tight. Your neck that siren lips brushed … A thumb that a perfect little hand curved around in complete trust …

“What do you see,” Zoya’s voice whispered in his ear again ... it hovered in the air. Her breath fanned—

No, it couldn’t be. Could it? He must be losing his mind.

“What else do you see?” 

I see us. You. Me.

I see us in that ridiculous supply room in that Thai restaurant when I first told you I love you … Because I couldn’t bear to wait another second and not tell you. When I really held you in my arms even though you’d fallen into them a million times before. 


I see you in my arms on our suhaag raat ...



That day, in that place, I'd said, I love you, Zoya … I've said it a million times since.

From mat jao, Zoya to I love you, Zoya … It all started with her going to New York. And now she was half-way to New York. 

 … "Par phir bhi unka saamaan reh gaya ...” 


Haunted and restless, Asad shoved Dobby off his chest and rose to get himself a glass of water from the kitchen.

This was getting ridiculous.

He walked through the darkened hall trying hard not to bump into something or send some other thing crashing. 

“Asad …”

He closed his eyes and came to a standstill. He couldn’t fight it.

“Anything else you see, hmm?”

I see us in this pool … the thin mist that rose to wrap us in a heated veil ... I’d made love to you here. You were still pregnant. In that white bikini … and then the red one …

          “Say it!” I’d begged when I was inside you. 

          "I love you, I love you,” you’d breathed and thrashed.

          He couldn’t help himself from plunging into that memory … deep and deeper he went … 

He let it  wash over him …

That night her breathy litany in his ear had punctuated each grateful thrust as he’d hitched her hips closer, impaling her deeper.

          "Keep saying it," he’d shaken her when Zoya’s strangled words faded. 

          "I can't, oh god, Asad I ca—!"  

Asad swore under his breath. The dark hall … the moonlight had spotlit them that night. It spotlit emptiness now. Then, he had swallowed her soft cries to hush her. Now, he swallowed the ashy lump in his throat.

Zoya!

His fingers dug into his palm pressing her initial deeper into his flesh. 

But Asad grinned the next instant. A merry memory came bubbling up to slice through that pall of longing. 

That night she’d forgotten her bra by the side and had made him run to retrieve it. She’d shaken him awake at 4 the next morning.

Yep, that’s what she’d turned him into: a besotted retriever who ran at command to fetch a bikini top.

A lovesick, horny retriever … who had no wags left to give. 

A half hour later Asad dropped into an exhausted nap.

Well, at least missing his family had made him forget about the cluster of escalating crises at work. The physical ache had temporarily devoured that daily unease. 

 

“Asad, I can’t tell you how much I've ached for you!”

Finally they’d been able to facetime in private. Zaid had fallen asleep in her arms. Zoya rubbed her cheek against his head as she looked at Asad. She rose to place the sleeping boy on the bed before returning to chat with his father. Their seeking fingers pressed the screen from across oceans and continents. It was futile. 

Fingertips flattened against cold panes.

Ached? Asad chuckled. If they were competing, he’d win hands down. Because she didn’t know how his ache had stirred up hallucinations so vivid that he’d felt her breath on his ear, her hand on his heart. 

“How’re you?” Zoya asked.

Asad smiled a half-smile. “Not good.” 

“You too?”

“Umm hmm.” 

Their gazes clung. 

“How was it for Zaid?”

She sighed. “He was mad as heck that he couldn’t find you. And believe me, he looked everywhere.”

Asad laughed. “Dobby too.” The cat climbed up next to him to peer at Zoya. Dobby meowed softly. Did he know that Zaid was asleep and didn’t want to wake him up? Asad grabbed him before Dobby settled down on the keyboard. 

“Tell me about work.” Zoya bustled about picking up Zaid’s clothes. “Any good news for a change?”

“Sit. Let me look at you fully,” Asad said softly.

Zoya did. Their hungry gazes re-collided and searched the other’s for tired lines and hollows.

“I loved the message you recorded for me,” she murmured. 

It had been a complete surprise. And such a pleasure.

She’s seen it only at the airport at Frankfurt. And then in the craziness of a two-hour stopover, changing Zaid who kept trying to escape, and getting something to eat, she’d forgotten to talk to him about it.

She’d gasped out loud when she saw it.

Déjà vu had never so bittersweet.

It was the same time of night.

Against the same window in their room (it had been his room the last time), in the same kurta, this time too Asad had struggled between yearning and self-control. 

He must’ve recorded it after returning home from the airport.

Two years ago his voice hadn’t been as certain. 

His voice was still husky this time but it expressed so much more than he would have in person. Before they left for the airport and in fact even at the airport, she knew that Asad was putting on an all-smiles-don’t-worry-about-me front. She’d let him get away with it because not doing so would’ve meant a public scene and a sorry sobfest.

“I know you wanted me to say it. I wanted to say mat jao, Zoya a thousand times over, but I couldn’t. You needed to go and I needed to make my peace with that. But each day without you will be dark, each cold night the boulder on my chest won’t let me breathe. Come back home soon. And never leave me again.” His voice became gruffer. 

It made her eyes sting. “Never,” Zoya would promise each time she watched the video. She had watched the first video more than a hundred times too. 

“I’m never traveling without you again,” she said to him now. Zoya rested her face on her folded arms. “If you don’t go, I don’t go.” 

“Good.” 

“What did you eat?” 

“Don’t remember.” 

“Asad, you better be eating well! Or I’ll have to talk with Aunty.”

“I’m eating. I just don’t know or care what it is.”

She hmphed in impatience.

“Zoya …” 

Even now love felt fragile. It could be gone in a day, an instant even. Why was it still handcuffed by borders, visas, air travel, time zones: by mornings-here and evenings-there? By IST and EST?

How lucky they were and how unlucky.

To have and to hold, and … to not have and to hold. To see each other, face-to-face, to be so close to almost touch … but to touch the terror of loss and taste the spasms of separation instead.

Asad gazed at her through the screen and bit off an oath.

They were trapped in twin screens wirelessly handcuffed to each other. … twin heartstrings beat one beat.

A sudden Mangalpur memory pricked her. “Mujhe laga ki main abhi bhi apse se bandhi hui hoon.”

 

Asad saw the gathering sheen of moisture in her eyes. “Zoya, no babe—” But he was lying to himself.

She smiled a watery and trembly smile. “Remember Mangalpur?” 

Asad sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Vividly. Every minute and every second. But why would you want to remind me of that?”

Zoya giggled. “No, I meant Mangalpur Part 2!”

Asad smiled too this time.

Mangalpur Part 2—when Zaid had been with them too. And the whole family. When they’d been able to get back at the damn panchayat and play Batman and Wonder Woman. Where he’d given her a brand new charm for her bracelet: a pair of miniature handcuffs. 

And when Zaid had kicked for the first time. 

The paradox of distances and the paroxysm of nearness melted for the briefest of moments. They grinned at each other.

Zoya shook her bracelet to show him.

“You’re wearing it again?” Asad asked in wonder. 

“I decided to bring it with me—I wanted to show it to Aapi and Jeeju and my friends. It was fun to tell Zaid stories about some of the charms on the flight. He likes the sound of it tinkling.”

Her bracelet was getting even more crowded. Aapi had gifted her a charm of a pair of baby shoes engraved with Zaid’s name in the back.

“I miss you,” she blurted out. Her hand rushed to cover her mouth—she didn’t want to say it out loud and remind him of it again. She started to cry quietly. 

“Shh, Zoya,” Asad soothed.

“I’m sorry,” she wiped her cheeks. “I didn’t mean to just say it out like that and upset you. Of course I miss you … I miss you like … like a …” 

“Like a heartbeat that stutters, a car that won't start? Like someone ripped my heart out and put it in a shredder?”

She gasped and then nodded. “Put it in a blender and set it on high. Oh god, Asad I don’t know how I’m going to survive the next few days.”

“We will, babe. We will. We have to.” 

She turned the computer sideways so he could see a sleeping Zaid. He was fast asleep, lips slightly parted and arms thrown over his head. The tiny chest rose and fell. Asad reached his hand out to try and cup his son’s face, rest his palm on that tiny chest and recite Allah’s name 99 times. He remembered the heartbeat they’d heard and recorded in the doctor’s office so many months ago.

He’d listen to it after they finished Facetiming.

“He was so mad that he couldn’t find you,” Zoya whispered. “All through the flight … he seemed anxious. He used a lot of his Zaidwords to ask us where you were. Why weren’t you with us? Oh god Asad, it was so sad and cute at the same time. Only your Abbu could calm him down when he got really miserable.”

“Really?”

“Umm hmm. Abbu would tell him stories about you as a baby. I learned so many things about you that I never knew before!”

“No!” Asad looked embarrassed.

“Yes! I finally came to know how my Akdu came to be my Jahanpanah! That he went on dangerous quests and adventures for missing baby teeth. That this was all the training he needed when he rescued a certain damsel in distress.” 

Asad grinned. “A damsel that was more distress than ‘in’ distress!” 

“Mr. Khan!”

“Oh god Zoya, I’ve hungered to hear that! No one scolds or sasses me like that.”

“Good, no one better do that either! It’s my registered trademark and nobody better steal it!”

They sighed as they ran out of things to talk about. 

“I talked to Abb—” 

“Aunty and Sidd—”

They spoke at the same time. They laughed. 

“What were you saying?” Zoya smiled. 

“Before dinner we watched videos of Zaid and Aunty started crying. She’s really missing Zaid,” Asad told her.

“Aww! So sweet. He’s wondering where Chhoti Nani’s too. And his favorite Chachu!”

“So he got a lot of gifts, I bet.”

“Don’t ask! And even after I’d told Aapi to not over do it. How am I going to bring all this stuff back?” 

“Simple. Leave some of the things you took from here behind.”

“Please, Mr. Khan. There you go being all practical and all! I was planning to get some of my stuff from here.” 

“Like what?”

“Some school stuff I wanted to show you. Albums. I wish I could bring my trophies too—I don’t have as many as you. But still! Favorite books … toys … you know, random stuff.” 

“We’ll have everything shipped over,” Asad decided.

“Not everything! Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Everything. Especially that princess costume you wore when you were 7.”

“Very funny! You’re talking as though you know everything about me.”

“I do,” he said huskily. 

Zoya’s breath caught. She rose to turn the lights off. Only a bedside lamp threw a soft glow in the room.

“Let me see them,” she whispered. “Take off your kurta.”

Asad’s smile froze too. His breath quickened. In one fluid motion he threw it off and Zoya’s hungry gaze drank him in. She had left countless love bites on him to punish him for all his Akduness and as payback for the kitchen ambush. She started counting them now in the same order that she’d marked him in. That night she’d started at his neck and feathered down to his collar bones. She’d even left some on the inside of his upper arms. Then she'd detoured to each bump of his six packs … and made her way to the inside of his thighs ...

“Does it hurt?” she asked when she’d done a careful re-count.

“Only that you’re not here.” 

“Asad …” 

“I love you … I miss you, and it hurts like hell!”



Song in Title:

Bachna Ae Haseenon (2009): "Khuda Jaane"






May 20, 2016

Jaane Tu Kahaan Hai, Udati Hawa Pe Tere, Pairon Ke Nishaan Dekhe (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 11 times)

Chapter 126

  

“You tricked me,” Asad complained the next time they FaceTimed.

“What? Why would you say that!” Zoya did a quick mental database search. OK, what was it that Jahanpanah had stumbled upon? Which trick exactly was he talking about?

He didn’t look too angry so it mustn’t be that bad, right? 

“I wasn’t the first one to see Zaid crawl. You made me believe that I was.” 

Ahhh ...

“Umm, woh actually …”

Asad chuckled. “Stop it,” he drawled as he rubbed his tired face. 

“Asad, you didn’t sleep well again?” 

He shrugged and waved her concern away. “It’s nothing. But tell me what was the logic behind that elaborate skit? Why did you and Ammi pretend that I was the first one to—?”

He smacked his head. Of course, he’d answered his own question hadn’t he? 

Zoya smiled when she saw him connect the dots. “Well … yes, actually Najma was the first one to see him scoot. And then Ammi and I watched him do it too.” 

She paused. “Asad you were so stressed out and down about us leaving. I wanted it to be a special moment for you … another Zaid milestone that was for your eyes only. I didn’t want you to hear about him crawling from us. I wanted you to see it—firsthand. So yeah, I got Ammi to agree …”

Asad shook his head. Why was he really surprised? At one time, way back when, he used to worry that a certain Ms. Farooqui would be a corrupting influence on his sister. 

 


And look at them now. Looks like she’d worked her magic on Ammi too by now. Now his own mother and sister collaborated with her to trick him into happy discoveries as she orchestrated and cho*reographed serendipity.

“Wait!” Zoya’s head reared. “How in the world did you even figure it out? Did Ammi say something?” She smacked her thigh. “It must’ve been Tamatar! Blabbermouth!” 

“No, it wasn’t either of them. It was you. You, Ms. Farooqui, are the genius blabbermouth!” 

Zoya tilted her head to the side in confusion—that frown and pout intensified.

He laughed. She looked so much like Dobby when she did that—just like Dobby trying his best to decipher human inscrutability.   

Asad held up Zaid’s Baby Book for her to see. A second later it dawned on her. She really was an idiot. She’d recorded the exact date and time of Zaid’s first attempt at crawling in there. Asad had seen Zaid crawl four days later. Duh. Do the math, Zoya.

“Are you mad at me?” she asked after she’d given herself a mental kick: dude, you’re such a dumbass.

“No, not really. What matters is what I felt at that moment when I watched him crawl toward me. It’s one of my favorite Zaid moments.” 

Zoya clapped, immensely proud of her trickeries. “Yay,” she squealed. She didn’t want to tell him of her initial fears that he’d miss the big moment if Zaid had started crawling here in the US.

“That’s exactly why we did it!” She went on. “And that’s why, Mr. Khan, we have the full video of the event—thanks to Ammi who started recording as soon as you walked in the door.”

Asad sighed. He really was Tubelight Ahmed Khan as his wife often liked to call him. He should have made the connection when he’d seen the video and shown it off to Abbu and Ayaan later. Why else would Ammi have her camera ready? Needs things spelled out for him, Ammi had always said about him.

Oh well.

In the larger scheme of things it really didn’t matter did it? What mattered was that Zaid was awake now after a full night’s rest. He was in his usual happy-yappy mood, cooing away, touching and clutching at the screen and banging at the keypad—all at once.

And what mattered the most was that he was ecstatic to see his Abbu. 

Zoya sat back, chin in her hand, as she watched dad and son have their own boys’ time. They’d already jammed on their guitars, sung songs and shadow-boxed. 

Zaid was now letting loose a flurry of Zaidwords to report to his Abbu on every detail of the last 30-40 hours. He waved his favorite soft toy of the day: a red and yellow and blue airplane. Anwar Nanu had greeted him with it at the airport. 

Charmed, Asad watched Zaid talk animatedly of the plane ride, of finally meeting Najma Phuphi who gave him a thousand kissies, of instantly recognizing Zee Nani … and coming to Noo Yawk—did Abbu know that it was a land of no skies? That strangers called him “hey, buddy”? That Anwar Nanu had held Ammi and Zaaf in his arms and sobbed like a baby? 

The questions were endless. Did Abbu know how his ears hurt when the plane was landing … and by the way, where’s Dobby? And why must he wear so many layers of clothing when they went outside … And why was Ammi always bugging him and not letting him crawl wherever he wanted … Where is Chhoti Nani? Wasn’t it time for his ghee-badam maalish? How would he be the world’s smartest boy otherwise? Why didn’t Chachu tell more Zaid Miyan and Dobby Miya-oon stories? 

Zoya laughed. She knew Asad was dying to reach out and wipe his son’s chin. “Why does he drool so much,” she remembered him asking. “It’s because he’s trying to speak up a storm,” she’d reassured him.

And boy, was their son talking up a storm! Hurricane Zaid had blown into town and made the cutest landfall. 

She didn’t dare wipe Zaid’s chin because that would break the flow of his conversation and concentration. Asad didn’t dare blink or he’d miss the climax of the most interesting story he’d ever heard in his life.

Surely this was one of his most favorite Zaid moments now? 

Asad recalled some lines from a poem that Zoya had scribbled in the Baby Book:

           “The angel forces open my hands

           And in the palms

           Leaves her footprints.”

           —Michael Harper

Forces open my heart … it should have said, Asad thought. This angel leaves tiny footprints all over my heart. 

He had been reading and poring over the Baby Book cover to cover these days; he  breathed it in when he woke and traced its heartbeat before he fell asleep … He touched the hair clippings from when Zaid was 7 days old and rubbed the stamps of his tiny hands and feet when he was just 5 days old.

Asad watched a chattering Zaid intently; he made encouraging daddysounds and asked his son a billion questions: How did you like Najma Phuphi, did you show her your boxing and Taekwondo? He smiled when he got detailed answers with gestures and claps and lots more drooling.

There were some Zaidwords that sounded a lot like dhishoom and bam and pow—Ayaan Chachu would be proud of his champ.

This time Zoya stepped in to wipe his chin and Zaid let her. She offered him his sippy cup of water which he drained gratefully. He was thirsty!

She picked him up to place in her lap. “Abbu has to go to work now, say bye.”

“Baaah,” Zaid called out with lots of air kisses. He snuggled in his mom’s arms and got ready for his night feeding. 

“Say, I love you,” Zoya encouraged. 

“Laaaa yuuuu!” He was getting sleepy and fading fast.

“I love you too,” Asad whispered. “Good night, sleep tight, tiger.” He touched the screen. Zoya pressed Zaid’s fingers against his dad’s.

“Naaaiiii … ” 

“Asad promise me that you’ll eat well,” Zoya said after tucking in Zaid tighter to her. “You know how you get acidity and a headache if you skip a meal!”

“… OK …”

“Mr. Khan, that was not convincing at all! Promise me, or I’ll tell Ammi. You don’t want her to worry, do you?” A girl had to resort to blackmail once in a while. 

Asad exhaled. “Promise. Is Zaid OK? No upset stomach or cold or cough or anything?”

“He’s fine!” Zoya patted her son’s back softly. He was this close to dropping off to sleep. “With all the daily kala teekas and duas would upset tummies and colds even dare to come close?” 

“Why’s he so tired, then?”

“Must be jet lag. Babies get it too. Asad seriously, don’t worry. He was fine all day. Besides, the whole Ammi army is here to protect him.” 

He smiled. “True. And his Chhoti Nani is protecting him remotely, by long distance telepathy.” 

Zaid had FaceTimed with everyone else at Siddiqui house too: Nanu, Chhoti Nani, Ayaan Chachu and Dobby. 

“Aunty’s planning a Quran Khwani as soon as you all come home.” 

They spoke softly now as Zaid fell asleep. She eased Zaid down between two pillows on her bed. They had moved her bed closer to the wall so that the little tyke wouldn’t roll over. 

“Promise me also that you won’t be the lone wolf or try to play a hero?” Zoya reminded him about their conversation when she’d left home.

Asad nodded absently as he watched her cover up Zaid. He didn’t want to think about work. Or talk about it. 

After their last fight he’d sat her down and talked about the recent developments at work—some of it she already knew but he’d gotten a more detailed report from Rakesh this time. 

A much clearer picture was emerging. 

For months now the storm clouds had been gathering. The national housing bubble was stretched tight, and the pendulum was all set to swing the other way.

In many major cities this meant that builders were getting antsy about the downturn and super-vigilant about protecting their turf—and bottomlines. 

Recent government polices were already tightening funding loopholes in the construction industry. Everyone knew there was an inventory glut … and everyone whispered about black money being held to tighter, microscopic scrutiny.

The pressure was mounting; so was the finger-pointing.

Farmers weren’t happy about shady land acquisitions, workers weren’t happy about the slow-down, homebuyers weren’t happy about the delays, and the general public wasn’t too happy about the cozy relationship between high-powered developers and politically-juiced government officials.

Everyday the media cheerfully bleated about scams and scandals.

And here is where their company came in, Asad explained.

The local syndicate in Bhopal was feeling the squeeze and crunch too. And they were lashing out against mavericks—like him.

From best he could tell, the builders’ association was getting jumpy about the recent real estate slump and was warning outliers and rebels to fall in line. They had laid down the law: don’t rock the boat, no price cuts for new homes to move stock, and under no circumstances any innovations of green infrastructure that could change the landscape of their domain.

The freeze was rippling out—relentless like a tsunami.

Suppliers, truckers, sub-contractors and most materials’ vendors had already been bullied into submission: stay the course or face blacklisting.

Any independent builder or smaller real estate outfit (such as theirs) bucking the diktat was going to be punished. Asad’s company was one of a handful of firms not feeding from the black money trough.  He had maintained strict standards about not over-extending into new projects before completing older ones. This meant that their growth had been slower than others at times of mega economic boom but also steady enough when the bust cycle came around. And thanks to this conservative policy they had a comfortable cushion and didn’t need to participate in the consortium's manipulation of the market.

And this made the powers that be frantic.

The recent crises of sabotage and dharnas and blockades and mini-accidents were just gentle reminders of the don’t-mess-with-us-or-else variety. It was standard intimidation procedure: play by our rules or you don’t play at all—because we own this city. 

And it was a warning that would be best heeded. For now, at least. 

Dark rumors were swirling about the recent deaths of a journalist and a couple of whistleblowers and activists who were supposedly working on an expose of the industry. Despite curbs on it, black money was still flowing and greasing palms, still blocking transparency … still erecting an invincible wall of corporate self-defense and immunity. This was the state of the Vyapam scam after all. The death toll from that racket was still fresh in people’s minds. 

“So they’re like a mafia? Is it the same sand mafia that—?”” Zoya had gasped in alarm even though some this had kinda confirmed her suspicions.

  

“We don’t know for sure. But it’s serious enough …”

“They’re like a cartel, right? Oh my god, Asad! That’s so much worse than I’d imagined.” 

 

As an American the word cartel brought to mind dangerous drug gangs that controlled multi-billion dollar empires with law enforcement agencies on their payroll. These guys didn’t bat an eyelid ordering swathes of assassinations in brutal spectacles of raw power ...

By now she’d also read and heard about the growing muscle of the sand mafia in India. And c’mon, Bollywood had made enough movies on the rampant corruption and violence in the construction industry—building moguls who were the mighty sugar daddies to powerful politicians … who flaunted open ties to the underworld ... who swatted police and investigative journalists away like flies.

Oh my god, Allah miyan! If this was the world Asad was dealing with, she’d rather have him back away completely. The sand mafia was already being linked to brazen assassinations and slayings in other cities too. 

“Zoya, I’m telling you all this because we had a pact about being honest with each other. I could very well have hidden this from you.” Asad grew more serious. “I know you’re up to something behind my back. That you’re somehow plugged into this with Rakesh. Just stop, OK? It’s too dangerous.”

“That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you too!”

“Fine, I’ll back off but only if you do too. Deal?”


No! How could she give up on their grassroots investigation? Fine, they weren’t getting the quickest results but at least they had momentum going … they had solidarity with the workers from the factories. They were united against the bad guys and making tiny inroads … 

Zoya had tried using all her wiles, all her tricks and tools from her arsenal to dissuade him.

But Asad hadn’t budged.

So in the end she’d said yes, OK, and fine.

And she hadn’t even crossed her fingers behind her back even though she was dying to do so.

Because this was dead serious and too damn important. 

But she felt angry on Asad’s behalf.

His company was doing good work—they were partnering with local farmers in negotiating an agricultural buffer. He had future plans for affordable housing co-ops and was hoping to inaugurate urban infill and retrofit projects … 

Besides if they gave up, then what about the current project and buyers who’d be stuck? Common people, middle-class families who’d scr*aped and scrounged money to buy a piece of earth to call their own? What of their lost savings and hopes?

Zoya knew that Asad hadn’t forgotten his earlier days of struggle and deprivation … Ammi’s hard work … the vow to himself to pull them out of hardship and make a safe home …

It wasn’t fair that good will could so easily be halted. That hope could be so easily snuffed by cynical politics. Just because a few crorepatis felt threatened by time’s shifting sands—?

It made her so mad. Why was it so hard to do good in this world and so easy to do bad? Why was the system rigged to be broken?

“Allah miyan, what’s wrong with this world!” she’d cried in frustration.

Asad had looked at her, head tilted, and she’d sighed.

A promise is a promise is a promise, right?

And if it removed Asad from the path of risk this was all worth it. Wasn’t it? They could be superheores another day.

But she felt selfish thinking this way … She knew Asad did too. In order to do good, you needed money, and in order keep money flowing why did you have to give in to cartels and mafias? That was just wrong. So wrong. It shouldn’t have to be this way. 

“Asad … it feels so wrong. I mean … I know that I want you to be safe above all else. But …”

“I know, babe. But at this point being safe also means feeling guilty.” He felt like a coward and hypocrite though …

And she knew it. 

“Then at least add a Part II to our deal …”

“What do you mean?” 

“Promise me that when I return and when things stabilize a bit, we’ll revisit this issue. That we won’t close the chapter on this. That somehow you’ll find a way a go on with the good work you started last year?” 

He smiled. “Even if it puts us in the path of danger?”

Her smile wavered. “Oh god, no!” 

Asad had pulled her into his lap and hugged her tight. “Let’s wait and see then. I know, I hate it as much as you do.” 


She’d smiled weakly. It was the only option.

For now.

 

Back at home in New York Zoya’d taken Zaid to visit her own pediatrician. After much oohing and aahing over how time had passed (how she had come here nearly twenty years ago and now look: A baby of her own!) she asked Dr. Rodriguez what she really wanted to ask: nut allergies. 

The doctor carefully explained genetics, immunity and variables. It could be inherited but it didn’t have to be. Zoya grew more and more hopeful as she concentrated on snippets of info: 

“No conclusive proof.”

“You didn’t have to stay away from nuts during the pregnancy.”

“Careful exposure under supervision is OK.” 

“So we can try to test him?” But then Zoya turned pale. Visions of needles and blood tests nearly had her hyperventilating. My poor baby! No needles, please! It would hurt so bad. She always had to look away when Zaid got his shots. His little face scrunched up and it took a full 2-3 seconds before he let out a mighty bellow. But those shots were absolutely necessary. Was this? 

Dr. Rodriguez laughed. “Still hate needles?” she teased. “Same old Zoya!” The girl had come into her office with broken bones and skinned knees, a swallowed dime and a bead up her nose but the sight of a syringe still made her weak at the knees. Every flu season she’d ask: “Do I have to get a flu shot? What if I don’t get one this year? Aapi, nothing will happen to me!”

No, Aapi would say. Hold out your arm and look away, Aapi always said. But at least she always got Cold Stone ice cream every blasted flu-shot day. 

“Don’t worry. No needles, I promise,” Dr. Rodriguez said.  “We could do a patch test or just monitor him in a controlled environment, right peanut?” The doctor tickled Zaid under his chin. He ducked his head into his mom’s shoulder, shy all of a sudden.

This time Zoya laughed.

Dr. Rodriguez called her little patients, peanut. She’d called Zoya a peanut till she was 4. Then at 5, Zoya had put her foot down and declared that she wasn’t a peanut or a nut of any kind. That she was Zoya Farooqui who crushed peanuts. The doctor had laughed as she examined her ear. “That’s my girl,” she’d said and they had high-fived.

When Zoya was 15, Dr. Rodriguez told her that she loved watching her patients rebel against being called peanut. For her it was a personality test: how soon did a kid develop their fighting spirit and find their voice?

Zoya looked down at her son. Ironic, right? Allah miyan, I hope my little peanut isn’t allergic to peanuts! She wondered what Asad would have to say about trying to get Zaid tested.

 

“Should we?” she asked him when they chatted later that night. Zaid had already talked with him and let him know what he’d done all day. He’d gone swimming with Nanu and then for a ride on the carousel at the mall. A big Winnie the Pooh balloon swayed in the corner of the room. Tomorrow they would go see Stachoo of Libety. Had Abbu seen it?

Worry lined Asad’s face as he considered her question. In a flash he relived the convulsions and swelling that had choked his airway when he went into anaphylactic shock the last time.

What if Zaid—? 

Zoya too remembered Asad flailing and passing out … The attack was swift and visceral. In just seconds he was gasping for breath and—

She nearly burst into tears.

He could have died! No way in hell did she want Zaid to feel even a nanosecond of that pain and breathlessness. What if his attack from the induced allergen was more severe?

“No, no it’s OK. We don’t need to do this!” she choked out. Zoya hugged herself wishing Asad was there to hold her, to pull her into his lap and kiss her better. “I couldn’t bear to see him like that, Asad! He’s so tiny—” 

“No, wait,” Asad interrupted. “Let’s think more about it. Don’t rule it out it completely.” He took a deep breath. “We found out about my allergies the hard way because we didn’t know I had them. I remember Ammi getting so panicked … no one knew what to do.”

He looked away weighing their options. He had the same fears but— 

Wouldn’t it be better to know in advance? To be prepared? Ammi was a wreck when he’d had his first attack—her anxiety levels were off the charts. Luckily they were at a relative’s house and there were others who were able to act swiftly.

Not testing Zaid now would mean not knowing … not knowing till it was too late and Zaid was in the throes of anaphylaxis if he did indeed turn out to have the allergy—chances of kids inheriting allergies from parents were high.

Asad knew that this ignorance wouldn’t be bliss—it would be corrosive doubt in fact. They’d always wonder, what if … 

“Do it,” Asad told Zoya.

 

“What, no!” 

“Zoya, think about it. You trust this doctor, right?”

She nodded. “I’ve known her most of my life.”

“And if, as she says, it’ll be in the controlled environment of her office they’ll have emergency measures and trained medical professionals if … if anything happ—I mean if he had a reaction.” 

“Asad … I’m not so sure. At least if you were with us … but not—”

Asad leaned forward. “I know babe, I know. But think about it. I still remember how hyper Ammi used to be when I was small. If she couldn’t be with me, she wouldn’t let me go to birthday parties or school trips or anything. I wasn’t allowed to share lunch with anyone at school.” 

“But, Asad …”

“Look, it wasn’t fun. And it was stress that Ammi didn’t need at that time,” he added. 

“But what if we find out he is allergic?” 

“So what? We’ll deal with it. We’ll know what to do!” 

“So … if Zaid does test positive for food allergies … you’re saying that we’ll know what to expect. We’ll be in more control that way?”

“Exactly. No hyperventilating about what ifs and if onlys.” Asad’s hand sliced through the air decisively. “We’ll know for sure and do what’s best.” 

Zoya was still thinking it through. “I know that some people wear a medical alert bracelet that let’s people know if you have some disease, allergy or disorder so that they can get prompt medical attention ...” 

“ … in case of a medical emergency.” Asad completed her sentence. “Think, this way we could make sure that he’s still safe and not go crazy with worry every time he’s away from home. We’ll be prepared.”

They looked at one another.

“Really? You think it’s the right thing to do?” Zoya still dithered. The vision of Asad’s attack still wouldn’t release her from its haunting grip. 

“Yes, I do.” Asad reminded her. “The more I think about it the more I think it’s the only thing to do. We’re grown-up, smart parents. We can’t rely only on duas and kala teekas alone to keep him safe. If we can find out in advance and take precuations accordingly, then that’s what we should do.”

“I’ll try’n get the earliest appointment. You’re right, it’s a no-brainer.”

Asad smiled. There she went with her Americanese again. She’d be spouting more of it now that she was back at home base and docked at the mothership …

The motherland … or was it, Uncleland—it was Uncle Sam after all, wasn’t it?

“Isn’t it weird that I’m being the cautious one this time and you’re all Jhansi ki Rani all of a sudden?” Zoya teased as she finished adding a reminder on her phone calendar.

Asad laughed. “No, it’s not weird at all. Looks like one of us has to be the Jhansi ki Rani in this relationship! It’s what keeps us going, I guess. It’s our trademark!”

Indeed. Jhansi ki Rani had become their beloved symbol of strength and resilience. She’d brought their signature dolls and graphic novels as gifts for Aapi, the girls, and their in-laws. And already Facebook was bulging with new images of these dolls, and already there were inquiries about how gorgeous they were and where could one buy them.

Zoya grinned at him. She felt relieved that he’d taken the decision about Zaid’s testing. May be if he’d said no, then she’d have used the same logic to convince him … Who knew. But for now she was glad for his take-charge attitude. 

“I can’t believe how scared I felt,” she said later. “I was fine at the doctor’s office thinking about talking to you about this. But then I remembered your attack and it freaked me out thinking about Zaid like that …” 

She shuddered. “Asad, your last attack was because of me …”

He sobered fast. “Shh, stop thinking about that. It wasn’t your fault.”

“But it was! If only I—” 

“Zoya, you have to let that go. You didn’t know—it’s as simple as that. And you’re the one who keeps telling me, ‘it doesn’t take a lot of strength to hang on. It takes a lot of strength to let go.’ Just let go.”

“But Asad, it’s not easy! You could’ve—” 

“I didn’t, because of you, remember? You found the Epi-pen and gave me the life-saving shot. And if we’re going to be playing the self-blame game then I should feel much worse for sending you to meet that weasel Akram … or for Mangalpur. I put you in danger, nearly walked away. You could’ve—”


“Shh, I didn’t, because of you. You came back for me and fought for me.”



“You took care of me. Both times, remember?” She added. 

“Exactly! That’s what I’m talking about—fighting for each other and taking care of us. And remember, you’re allowed to freak out about Zaid—you’re his Mom. I’ve seen Ammi, Zoya. Motherhood makes the strongest women vulnerable. Sure, they’re tigresses when their kids are in danger … but most of their lives they live in terror of losing them ...” 

Zoya’s eyes stung. She knew what he was saying. Single mothers like his Ammi lived in mortal terror for their children and their wellbeing. But wow, Jahanpanah was on a superhero roll here. Proactive dad and super-supportive husband! She loved him like this! Zoya clasped her hands in silent gratitude. Thank you, Allah miyan. 

“Promise me one thing,” Asad said. 

“What?” 

“That you’ll still be my Jhansi ki Rani and not let any fears for Zaid weaken you or make you doubt yourself.”

“But—”

“Promise me that you’ll always be you.” 

Zoya beamed at him. Jahanpanah wasn’t just asking her to be strong. He was actually giving her permission to be a bit of her usual mental self.

MA! 

“Be that same girl who drove you crazy for days on end?”

 

He laughed. “Umm hmm, that same girl. Be her. Don’t ever change.” He didn’t worry about her leaping before looking any more. He knew the protective instincts that drove her now; they were his own.

She no longer drove him as mad as she used to.

 

Well, she did. But not in the same way. 

“You’re sure you’ll be able to handle this badtameez ladki and Musibat Mohatarma as you used to call me?”

“Please. I’ve handled her just fine so far, haven’t I?”

“Mr. Khan!” 

“Ms. Farooqui!” 

“Oh god Asad, I miss you so much! I miss holding you, touching you.”

He raised an eyebrow; she blushed. “Yes, and that too. I miss that the most!”

Their gazes snagged as if they were already in each other’s arms … like the thousands of times before.

0 to 60, and VROOM!

They weren’t parents or superheroes any more. They were just Asad and Zoya. The same Zoya and Asad who couldn’t keep their hands off each other when within a foot of each other. The same …

But their hands came away empty this time; their solo breaths remained unpaired … and lonely. An entire universe gaped between them. But she’d promised herself that she wouldn’t be a Debbie-downer with such thoughts. She wouldn’t bring Asad down along with her. He could do with some cheering.

“And I miss Rumi. Give me a little Rumi,” she begged.

He exhaled. “I knew you’d ask.” 

“And I knew you’d have something special waiting for me!” 

“I wanted to do something more special—like you did for me when I went to Hyderabad. I was thinking of leaving surprise notes for you to find each day … But I had no time!” He pounded his fist on the cushion beside him. He nearly flung it away. But this was Asad. He carefully patted it and placed it a sharp 90-degree angle against the back. 

“Asad c’mon, I totally understand! Don’t beat yourself up about it. Of course, you didn’t have time. I was there, remember? I saw how crazy busy you were. That’s what our last fight was about  …” She grinned at him and a half-smile tugged at his lips. 

“I was my usual Akdu self that night too, wasn’t I?”

“Umm,” Zoya let her head fall to the side; her eyes drooped, her hand rose to stroke her throat. “I’ve always loved your usual Akdu self! May be that’s what makes our marriage tick: you being Akdu and me being badtameez!” 

“That night though, I was rough—”

“On some rough days Mr. Khan, rough is good for the soul. We needed rough that night to put us right, to put us together.”

“Zoya, you’re crazy.”

“And you love me more for it! Hey, you already knew you’d signed up for crazy.”

“I sure did. Who knew that I’d grow to love crazy? That I’d crave it! Wait just a second,” Asad went over to the closet to retrieve her love notes from his trip to Hyderabad. 

“What’s that?” Zoya asked. 

“Your notes. I put them back in my wallet to read through them whenever I get a break.” 

“Aww, you liked them that much?” She’d never get enough of hearing him say that.

“I loved them! And I’m kicking myself for not doing something similar for you.”

“Asad you can always live-recite Rumi for me whenever you feel too guilty. Besides, I brought your postcards with me to re-read. So we’re even.”

“You did? Good girl! Do you remember long ago when you dropped off flowers at my office in disguise? This is the note you’d left me then.”

 

Twin insomnias haunted them even now … Zoya thought. No, she wouldn’t look into that abyss nor drag him down with her. 

“When I’m with you again, we’ll stay up all night, OK? We’ll put this beghairat and awaara insomnia to sleep!” She coaxed a smile from him. 

“And this one?” Asad showed her the most recent note. “You dropped it into my coat pocket at the airport, right?” 


Zoya nodded. It had been murder walking away and leaving him behind that day. 

She’d wondered when he’d find the note and why it hadn’t been sooner. Mr. Khan must be losing his edge not cleaning out his coat pockets the moment he took it off! But she knew why he’d lost his edge these days. He was missing them that badly. 

Zoya watched him read her more Rumi. Some lines he knew by heart. Others he re-read from her anniversary suagat: the Jahanpanah-nama.


Later Asad flipped through her notes as he spoke softly from memory. “OK, here are some lines from Rumi I was thinking of today on my way home.” He took a deep breath.

          “There's nothing worse than to walk out along the street without you. 

          I don't know where I'm going.

          You're the road, and the knower of roads,

          More than maps, more than love.”

She sighed and closed her eyes. “Mmm, that was lovely … you’re my road, Asad—at my feet … as well as the North Star above me. You're my map too like my body is yours. I don’t need maps or compasses when I’m with you. You’re both. And without you, I’m lost. No GPS or nav. system would help find me.”

Asad watched her face in repose. Her eyes were still closed. For all the fun he made of her Americanese, Allah miyans and silly shayari, she still managed to surprise him with the depth of her longing for him. Had she been next to him he would have kissed each quivering eyelid softly.

She sensed his yearning as her own.

Zoya opened her eyes and reached out her arm to him.

“Asad ... My ‘knower of roads’ … walk with me and tell me more. Take me away with some Ghalib now.” 

Asad leaned back against the cushions on the settee and closed his eyes too. 

          “Unke dekhe se jo aa jaati hai munh par raunaq,

          Woh samajhte hain ki beemaar ka haal achcha hai …” 

“Mr. Khan, don’t you dare be beemaar!” 

“I already am.” 

“Asad!” 

“Zoya, it’s no use telling me not to feel miserable. I already do.” 

She got her bag and pulled out the postcards from Hyderabad. “It’s uncanny. Your last postcard was a verse from Faiz: 

          “Raat yun dil mein teri khoyi hui yaad aayi,

          Jaise viraane mein chupke se bahaar aa jaye,

          Jaise sehraaon mein haule se chale baad-e-naseem,

          Jaise beemaar ko be-wajhe qaraar aa jaaye.”

“Don’t be beemaar, please.” 

“Till I see you in front of me, I won’t be beemaar. But till I don’t hold you it’s like going through withdrawal symptoms … like someone turned off my oxygen supply and I'm gasping for breath underwater.”

She groaned. She felt the same way. But she sure as hell didn't want to dwell on the image of him gasping for breath. “Remember in Hyderabad I said I was your asli Epi-pen!” 

“Hmm, my life saver. Life-saving-shot-giver! Iss beemaar ka karaar … Nothing’s changed since that trip except for the fact that you’re away from me for a longer time now.” Asad continued. “The only bright spot in my day is talking to you both.” 

“I know, me too.” 

“When I’m awake I think of you sleeping at that time—too far away from me … I pray that you’re sleeping well because I sure as hell am not. When I’m asleep, if I sleep, I dream only of you …”

Hah, like she slept well at all! But he didn’t need to know that. Zoya’s hand flew to her mouth as she bit off a sob. “I shouldn’t’ve come. I miss you so bad and I hate what you’re doing to yourself!” 

Asad’s eyes darkened and his breath caught. “Zoya, babe don’t … You did the right thing by going. I just need to stop being a baby about it, I guess.” 

“Aww,” she cooed.

“I’m just counting the days till you return, the day that my family will be intact in my arms. And that day I promise you, I’ll get a full night’s rest.”

“Asad, honey, please try to get some rest. You know I’ll be miserable here if you don’t.”

“I’ll try.” He pointed to the stack of albums, the Baby Book and the Jahanpanah-nama on his night stand. “These keep me company when I can’t sleep.” Asad couldn’t believe how fast Zaid was growing up. He was so much tinier just a few months ago—that teeny foot had been no bigger than his dad’s thumb. 

He cleared his throat. “Some of the pictures and notes have come loose in these because I’ve been going over them again and again ...” 

“No worries. I’ll fix it all when I get back.” 

“Get back soon and fix me too.” 

She smiled. He teased her about being Ms. Fix It so many times.

 

“Hashtag Ms. Fixit,” he’d put down next to her picture in the Jahanpanah-nama.

“I will.” 

“Hey, you get a goodnight’s sleep too.” He’d seen her cover up many a yawn and knew that she was cheating sleep too.

Her eyes drooped. “Make love to me,” she whispered.

He cleared his throat. Desire curled and coursed through him. He thought she'd never ask. “Close your eyes,” Asad said after staring at her for a long time. 

She did. 

“Now touch your face, softly … slowly. Feel your fingertips on your eyelids, your cheeks. Your lips … feel how full they feel. How soft. Trace them with your finger for me. Lick them.” His voice had roughened.

Asad couldn’t bear to see her this close and not be able to touch her. He couldn’t look away. He would've used his thumb to feather across her lips … his knuckles to brush her cheek and jaw … He was already hard. 

Her mouth felt dry so she swallowed and licked her lips again. Zoya smiled when she heard him groan. She opened her eyes to a slit to take a peek at him. His lips were parted, his gaze snagged at her lips, his breath erratic. Already? 

He saw her looking. “No peeking. Now slide your hands down your throat.” He watched her head fall back and her hair spill over her shoulders. He would have tugged at it and wound a strand around his finger. Slowly. She would've gasped and he'd have dipped his head to kiss her. “Find that pulse that I love to bite and suck when I’m inside you …” 

“Asad,” she moaned.

“Yeah baby, I’m right here. Watching you … loving you.” 

When she opened her eyes again they were drugged. Her face was flushed. Asad swore under his breath. “Take off your shirt and bra,” he ordered. 

Zoya did. On the plane ride over she’d imagined putting on a long distance show for him. But she liked this better. She wanted him to direct and cho*reograph her. He would demand and dictate the pace. She would follow the tenor of his voice, the tone of his ardor.

And with each husky command she imagined his hands on her, his mouth and breath on her. He told her to cup her bre*asts, to stroke her nipples with her thumbs. To feather her palms over them and feel how ripe and ready they were. For him.

He asked her to trail her fingers to her navel and circle it lazily.

“Take off your jeans … slowly. Don’t remove your panties as yet." 

Her bre*asts moved in synchrony as she bent to do so and he sucked air. "Zoya!"

Slowly he made her trace her thighs, knees and feet with her fingertips. Very slowly. Exquisitely slow.

“Now just as slowly walk back your fingers from your feet to your ankles. Rub your thumbs on the inside of your ankle like I do …" She whimpered. "Now drag them over your shins … knees … now the back of your knees where I love to kiss you.” 

“Oh god, Asad, you’re killing me,” she whispered.

“No babe, I’m not the one doing the killing, believe me. Now move up your thighs … to the tops. Small circles … now, bigger. Good girl.” 

He paused. “Now move your fingers to the inside of your thighs. Soft, like a feather. Now pinch them for me. Leave marks.” He watched her quiver and let out a harsh breath. “Take it off. Now.”

When she opened her eyes this time his face was flushed. His eyes burned into her. Slowly, deliberately, she stepped out of her panties waiting for his instructions. She didn’t have to tell him how wet she was for him. He knew. 

“Show me,” he ordered. 

Zoya blushed. She felt shy all of a sudden but the intensity on Asad’s face made her bolder. A pulse ticked at his throat. She would have licked and nibbled on it. She knew he was hard for her. She knew his body like she knew her own.

"Suck your fingers." He would've made her suck his fingers before touching her. He watched her lift her hand and slowly suck on two fingers not breaking eye contact with him. He groaned.

“Touch yourself for me,” he urged. 

She gasped at the break in his voice. She knew he was barely holding on to his self-control.

“Asad …”

“Do it.” 

She reached her hand between her legs and flinched at the ache.

Asad nearly flew apart when he saw her crying softly. “Shh Zoya, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.” 

“No, I asked you to make love to me. But I didn’t realize that I’d feel so hollow. I need you,” she sobbed. “When I’m with you I’ll do anything, everything you want me to do, but not like this. I can’t bear to come without you holding me.” 

“I know. Me too, baby. Me too. Shh,” his eyes were damp too. 

Zoya wiped her tears and smiled at him—she still hadn't forgotten her mission to cheer him up and didn't want to end their chat on this note of sad despair.  She pulled on her old robe. “You’ve ruined me Mr. Khan. I can’t believe that I’m so useless without you!” 

“Funny,” he grinned. “I was thinking the same about you!”

“Asad!” 

“I love you. I love you so much.”

She touched her lips and pressed her fingers to the screen. “I love you too. Now go and have the best day ever. Remember Rumi's words—we aren't separate. We are in each other all along. Eat well and don’t drink too much coffee. I’ll be waiting here when you return from work.”

“Good night, babe. I’ll be taking that cold shower now.”

She blushed as she clicked on 'end.' 

Zoya imagined him in the shower.

Shoot. She might need one too. 

I love you.

She looked at the charms on her bracelet. Their initials. The cricket ball. The tiny handcuffs. The infinity sign and the Yin and Yang. Closing her eyes, she ran her fingers over them with a prayer. She remembered each special moment the charms signified. Each moment he'd given them to her.

Her fingers closed around the boxing glove. It reminded her of— 

She called him up the next second on her laptop. 

The familiar tone rang and rang.

Asad, where are you?

He clicked on at the eighth ring—naked, with just a towel around his waist. 

“Zoya, is everything OK?”

“Take me in the shower with you.”



Song in Title:

Veer (2009): "Surili Ankhiyon Wale"







Jun 21, 2016

Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 10 times)

Chapter 127


 

Asad smiled as he saw Zoya’s name flash on his phone. He clicked the call on eagerly.

“Asad! I got the package you sent. They’re beautiful! And just perfect! I’ll show you when we chat at night—your time,” she rushed, her words a babbling brook tripping over time-polished pebbles.


“Zoya, wait—”

“I have to go. Talktoyoutonight!” The happiness decibels in her voice made his arms hurt. 

Asad looked the dead phone in his hand. She was gone; the ache remained. 

It was late, Or early—must be afternoon there. He looked at the clock on the side table. 4:07 am.

She must’ve forgotten the time difference in her excitement.

Asad lay back down and crossed his arms behind his head. Damn, he was wide awake now. He rose to offer his morning prayers and get the day started. 

 



He arrived at work earlier than usual these days much to his staff’s fright. Were they expected to come in as early too?

But Asad seemed more preoccupied than before, never really prickly, or strict with any one so they went about their regular routine. Only Prasad seemed attuned to his absent-mindedness and strange inertia. He did try to come early even though Asad urged him not to.

“Then, you must leave early too,” he told an obdurate Prasad. “Spend more time with your family. It’s an order,” he added to end all protests.

Work had halted at one of the sites thanks to the ongoing crises. A chilly peace had descended on the industry in the wake of the economic downturn and its dark aftershocks.

And nothing was normal no more.

Everyone knew that the inaction was a mere veneer of calm. Underneath it, everything bubbled and simmered angrily … as if weary snipers bided on never-ending vigils in their nests. The wait for something to change seemed to never end; the other shoe seemed to never drop. And yet they waited for it to drop every day. Invisible bull’s eyes and crosshairs marked each player. Page 3 parties dripped with unease—laced with a dose of ricin.

Asad pushed back from his chair and rose to glare at the street below from his window. He hated this standstill—it went against every fiber of his being and yet he had to toe the line.

He raked an impatient hand through his hair.

Restless energy poured off him. He felt suspended in mid-stream—as if he was punching his sandbag underwater. Everything was in slow motion and his fist never connected. There was nothing to do here and he still needed to be here. He wanted to be with his family so bad but he still needed to be here. Morale. He needed to keep up employee morale in these days of corporate fret.

A fist pounded the wall next to the window; a picture rattled in its frame. 

He turned back to his desk and exhaled. 

Zaid’s palm swatted his cheek.

Asad squeezed his eyes shut.

Zaid’s bright giggles mingled with Zoya’s. Her breath fanned his neck. They were in his arms ... her perfume in his breath, his son’s lashes fluttering against his cheek after a sloppy wet kiss …

Instant zenness flooded him.

Asad felt himself calm down and decompress. His fingers relaxed. And a new energy zipped through him. He removed Zoya’s shayari notes from his wallet and re-read them one by one. The urge to write to her rippled through him. He was done with postcards this time around. He didn’t know how long they’d take to get to her and god knows who would touch or read them. Instead he flipped the yellow legal pad open to a fresh page and hand-wrote a Rumi quote: 

          I am ashamed

          To call this love human,

          And afraid of God

          To call it divine.”

Asad took a photograph of this note and sent it to her mail, message, instagram, facebook and Whatsapp. He just had to be sure she’d get it. And then he sat at his desk to compose a long letter to his son. He’d slip it into the Baby Book and email a copy to Zoya so that she could read it out to Zaid—as many times as possible.

 

He was woken up in the middle of the night again but this time by a set of messages buzzing on his phone.

Asad grinned at the photo she’d sent back.

Only Zoya.

She must’ve printed out his note to do this. She’d sent a picture of his note with lipstick marks of a kiss on it next to his words. And under it she’d hand-written her reply:

          “You have breathed new life into me

          I have become your sunshine

          and also your shadow.”

          —Rumi 

Zoya must have obviously researched the lines he’s sent her because these lines were from the same poem by Rumi. Asad ran his thumb over the screen to touch the words and re-read them.

Sunshine … and shadow …

His heart knocked in his chest.

It hadn’t escaped his notice that she was trying to be extra cheerful these days for him.

He just hoped that his dour mood wasn’t casting a chill on all the fun she could have been having with friends and family and visiting old haunts. As alien as America was to him it was her home after all. He better keep his Akduness under wraps. Only two weeks more. He could survive. They’d be home soon and everything would be all right. 

The other photo she’d sent, showed her bracelet now sporting the two flag charms next to all the others.

Asad frowned. There seemed to be a forlornness in that image of the bracelet on her thin wrist; it sat on her skin in heavy doom.

Earlier he was planning to send her a picture of one of her own notes to him from when he was in Hyderabad—a perfect quote from Neruda. It echoed her yearning then; it would be his now:

          “… so I wait for you like a lonely house

          till you will see me again and live in me.

          Till then my windows ache.”

But no. He wouldn’t send her this one right now. Too real. And too crushing. That separation had been short—only 2 days. This one was an eternity by comparison. Nor would he send the lines from Zauq that he was planning to, earlier:

          “Shola-e-aah ko bijli ki tarah chamkaun

          Par mujhe dar hai, ki woh dekh kar dar jayenge …” 

Not today. Was she weighing herself down with his misery? He’d talk to her first about not being a martyr who oversmiled for his benefit. He needed her to keep being his Jhansi ki Rani.

 

He had guessed right. But what Asad didn’t know was that Zoya had struggled with composing her reply to his latest note. She wanted to add words, lines and stanzas for the charm bracelet that now displayed the twin flags. She’d even written some lines but then she crumpled up the piece of paper and threw it away. But later she fished it from the trash and smoothed it out to add to her collection. May be she’d give it to Asad when she was back in India.

It bared her ache too much for now and she wasn’t willing to share it yet. It could wait. What was it someone had said once: Write from scars not wounds … ? Yes, this was still a wound—too raw. Let it heal first.

And she had vowed to herself after all that she wouldn’t bring Asad down. She re-read her note before folding it carefully and adding it to the pile of postcards and tying them up with a silk ribbon. It was a messy memo—too many words crossed out and re-written. She had spent hours on it. But it revealed a darkness she’d been stuffing inside herself all these days:

          Me and you, you and me …

          Both stars and stripes … and the tricolor bars and wheel …

          They lie when they say that love knows no borders, passports, flags or visas.

          They wrap fallen soldiers in flags too ...

But that felt all too morbid and over the top to her. That’s why she’d discarded the note. Zoya knew that Asad had sent the charms as a token of her blended nationalities. And Zaid’s. America and India were the two sides of her coin. And Zaid’s. But somehow her mind’s deadness couldn’t see the sunshine of those tokens as yet. Only the shadows crept closer …

She wanted to say so much more about the gaping distance between them, the miles and miles of land and oceans that stretched between them because of their nationalities … but somehow the words were jammed up in her mind like a car sunk into a rut. No matter how much she spun the wheels it wouldn’t move forward.

Time’s treadmill was ceaseless; the universe’s wink too unrelenting.

In the end she decided to only send Rumi’s quote appended to his own note. The second photo of the silent charms hid the cavity of her soul—whom could she tell that she felt neither American nor Indian right now. She felt … she felt hollow. Unlike Goldilocks, nothing felt just right. In fact, it was all just wrong.

  

Meanwhile her oblivious bracelet was garnering many looks and smiles wherever Zoya went. There were curious questions as they waited in lines to sightsee; raised eyebrows at the handcuffs; oohs, ahs and awws at all of the Zaid-related keepsakes. 

Naz had ordered charm bracelets for all the moms and girls. They’d all trooped to the Mall to pick out favorite charms. And at the rate hers was filling up, Zoya would be needing a new one too.

In the next few days they went to the usual New York City hot spots: Empire State Building—they would watch “An Affair to Remember” and “Sleepless in Seattle” for a late-night movie marathon to relive the landmark’s romantic Hollywood glory.

They took dozens of pouty selfies at Times Square. They paid quiet homage at the September 11 Memorial. They strolled through Central Park and rode the carriages at dusk.

The shops on fifth Avenue were Masha’allah! Zaid was kept snug in his baby carrier as he ga-gaed and goo-gooed at people who smiled at him and high-fived him. His stroller was a lifesaver for when he took exhausted naps in between and perfect for hanging shopping bags. 

And then there was the Statue of Liberty. Zee Nani bought Zaid a green foam crown and sweatshirt so that he could look just like a mini Statue of Liberty. His Nanis and Dadis and Phuphis and Khalas couldn’t resist taking dozens of pictures with this miniature Statue of Liberty. Instagrams and snapchats and whatsapps were clogged with Zaidpics. In a jiffy they had amassed a bajillion likes and faves. 

When he asked his mom who Statue of Liberty was, his mom told him that she was like Jhansi ki Rani—a protector of freedom. She watched over people who were being hurt by bad guys and welcomed them to a safe haven in the land of the free and the home of the brave.


Zaid liked Stachoo of Wibety a lot. She sounded cool. And now that he had the crown and shirt he, Ammi, and Abbu could act out the story for bedtime. But where was Abbu? When would he see him?

Why wasn’t he here?

Would he never—? 

“Zaid, what happened baby?” Ammi asked.

And Zaid’s lip stuck out; his face crumpled.

He pulled at his green crown to throw it off, ducked his head into his mom’s neck and … hollered. 

Zoya hugged him tight. She’d already changed him and he’d pigged out on on half a frozen chocolate banana so this was about something else. She rubbed his tiny back in circles. “What happened, honey? Tell mama,” she soothed.

“ … Bbbuuu,” he sobbed. 

“Aww mera baby, you’re missing Abbu!” Her eyes stung. What a terrible mother she was for separating father and child! Zoya cuddled him closer as she brushed her helpless cheek against his head in apology. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered in his ear. 

She smiled weakly when Dilshad patted her shoulder and gently removed Zaid from her arms. Everyone hovered around them in concern. Humaira hugged Zoya sideways noting her teary distress.

“Kya hua Zaid ko?” Rashid asked the question at everyone’s lips. 

“Zaid is missing his Abbu,” Dilshad told them as she wiped her grandson’s tears. “Abbu also misses you, you know?” she asked him.

He looked at his Dadi in confusion. How did she know? Had she met Abbu? Today? 

“Yes, he does! Every day, so much!” she spread her free arm. “More than this much.”

Najma held her mother’s hand and spread out her other arm toward the sky. “Even more than this much!”

Rashid held Najma’s hand and made the arc wider. “Even more than this much!” The others linked their hands too making the circle of his Abbu’s love stronger and even bigger. Zaid’s eyes widened. He seemed to forget that he was crying a minute ago. Abbu loved him and missed him this much?

“He told me to tell you a secret,” Dilshad said softly in his ear.

Zaid’s eyes brightened as he waited for his Dadi to tell him more about Abbu’s secret message. His Ammi had already read him Abbu’s letter this morning. Two times. 

“Abbu told me to tell you that when Zaid misses me tell him I love him and that I’m singing his favorite song.” 

The little boy grinned and clapped his hands. “Nnnnddd gi ki hree thi?”

“Yes!” everyone cheered. Najma took him from Dilshad’s arms and handed Zaid to Rashid. 

“Abbu, sing for him.”

And with the Statue of Liberty receding behind them on the ferry Zaid sang along with his family. “Zindagi ki yahi reet hai,” everyone sang. And he knew all the words too! Well almost. 

When he went back into his mom’s arms he was happy again. Zoya pointed at the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

“See, she’s saying, bye! Say bye!” He waved at Lady Liberty. “Give her a flying kissy.” He did. Many, many times over. Stachoo of Wiberty reminded him of Abbu. She would watch over Abbu and keep him safe. Just like Abbu watched over him and kept him safe.

Zoya kissed the top of his head. But a jagged piece of ice wedged deeper into her heart. Her baby crying for his father had undone her as nothing else ever could. She squeezed her eyes shut and recalled Asad’s letter to Zaid. She had it memorized by now: 

          My Dearest Zaid,

          I am writing to you from home in Bhopal, India. You are so far away from me right now—more than 12,314 kilometers! That would be like Abbu going to office and coming back every day for a whole year. That’s how far you are from me.

          And I miss you so much. It’s a whole year’s worth of missing you. I can’t wait to see you soon. Just 14 more days to go before I see you and hold you!

          (Asad knew that Zoya would count off the numbers on his tiny fingers, making his letter as interactive as possible).

          You know what I miss the most? I miss your little fingers against my cheek as I hold you in my arms. (He knew Zoya would kiss each fingertip and his son would gurgle with delight). I miss your eyes as they sparkle like stars (by now Zaid recognized his facial features. Asad knew he would touch his own eyes when Zoya read this out to him), your button nose (he’d next touch his nose) the hundreds of kisses you give me in a day. And I miss your giggles and laughter (he knew Zoya would tickle Zaid at this part to make him giggle and laugh). 

          Dobby feels the same way. He sends you lots of furry kissies—one for each day you’ve been away. Chhoti Nani is waiting to give you ghee-badam maalish and Nanu promises to tell you more about Harry at Hogwarts. Chachu is glum too. He misses his champ and best bud. He has lots of Zaid Miyan and Dobby Miya-oon stories waiting for you.

          You are in my heart (he knew Zoya would draw a circle on Zaid’s heart at this point) and thoughts (another circle at his temple). Clap each time you think of Abbu (and he knew Zaid would clap at this part). Abbu loves you from your head to your shoulders, knees and down to your toes (Zoya would walk her fingers from his head and shoulders to knees, and then tickle his feet). Abbu misses those perfect little toes the most. I will bite them and eat them up when we meet again (Zoya would mime the action for him, Asad was sure of it, and Zaid would squeal in delight).

          Lots of love and kisses and the loudest raspberry (Zoya would blow on his stomach at which he'd giggle and squirm) for my tiger (Zaid would growl for sure),

          Abbu 

Zoya swiped the moisture from her eyes furtively. She loved that letter and knew that Zaid did too. And as he grew older their son would realize its worth more and more with each passing year.

Thank you, Asad. 

 

When Zaid wasn’t missing his Abbu he was having a lot of fun. He went to the park everyday with Nani and Dadi when they weren’t sightseeing. The baby swing was such fun! Allah miyan, there was a sandbox! The zoo at Central park was MA! He even got to feed a goat. At the mega toy stores his Ammi went crazier than him. Zaid had loved to watch the other kids more. So many babies like him! And so many big kids! When would he be a big kid? When would he walk and run? He squirmed and wiggled so much that Zoya had to set him down in the baby play area. Zaid zoomed off to hang with other rugrats to erect skyscr*apers with mega bulding blocks. He was going to be an architect like his Abbu!

Zoya spent time catching up with friends. She retold her grand Indian adventures so many times over but her friends never tired of the stories. 

“You found your birth father AND a sister? How cool!” 

“And Mr. Right? Un-freaking-believable!” 

"Who knew that all your dreams were waiting for you all these years in India?"

“Honeymoon on the Palace of Wheels? Do all Indians live in palaces and ride elephants? But dude, in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ there were so many poor people.”

“Your mother-in-law lives with you? Whoa! What’s that like?” 

“Handcuffed to a guy and you hated each other? You’re making this sh*it up!” 

Her friends fell head over heels in love with Zaid and spoiled him rotten. Of course, he got even more gifts.

Allah miyan, there were just too many gifts.

She was not going to be able to take them back with her. So Zoya decided she’d donate them to the Children’s Hospital that Aapi volunteered at.

Not that Zaid would miss them. Like Dobby, he liked the boxes and packaging better than the toys themselves. Anwar Nanu had built him a fort by taping and shaping a bunch of cardboard boxes together. 

He’d done the same for his mom when she was a little girl—except it had been a princess castle then. When Zaid wasn’t helping his grandmothers cook he liked to crawl in and out of his fort playing hide and seek with Nanu, Dobby and all his imaginary friends. He was in the process of coloring its walls with crayons (when he wasn’t eating the crayons, that is). One day they’d even found him sleeping in there curled up like Dobby.

In a sudden burst of inspiration Najma Phuphi had offered to buy her favorite nephew a drum set. While Zoya leaped excitedly, Dilshad and Zeenat glared her down.

“He makes enough noise playing with my pots and pans at home,” Zeenat said. “Buy him one when he comes to visit you in your house.”

Of all the gifts he got, Zaid soon tired of them. Only the red plane he slept with at night.

But on one of his many crawling adventures he discovered kitchen cabinets! And since then he liked to help his Nani and Dadi cook. He hummed and banged. And he helped the food get made. The louder he hummed, the better it tasted. Everybody gave him credit for the aloo muttar and koftas. He banged extra loud for the kheer. 

Zoya sighed and then her eyes lit up. “Aapi, what about my drum set? I hope you haven’t given it away!”

“Ya Allah,” Zeenat re-glared at Najma who sniggered. “Why did you have to remind her,” she muttered.

“Aapi!”

“It’s still in the garage, baba.” She turned to Dilshad. “I wanted to give it away but Anwar wouldn’t let me. When she was 15 she and her friends wanted to start a garage band. Itna shor! Summers, the neighbors would shut their windows and look at me with great pity.”

Zoya grinned, “c’mon Aapi, we weren’t so bad.” 

“The only thing you kids ever got good at was singing happy birthday.”

“Hey, not fair. We were pretty good at ‘Jai ho!’ too.”

“Hmmpphh!” 

“And we sang at Payal’s sister’s sangeet, remember?” 

“Please, that was a pity booking. My friend felt sorry for you,” Zeenat sassed right back.

“We were awesome and you all loved us. Stop lying, Aapi!”

Zeenat nodded. “OK fine, you were cute.” Thank god for the karaoke machine otherwise thanks to Zoya, her friends would’ve banned her from all parties! She winked at Dilshad who laughed.

“Come Tamatar, let’s go explore the garage! I'll show you my ice skates.”

 

Zoya wanted to treat the girls at Max Brenner, the Chocolate Bar and Restaurant where all the food was basically different combinations of chocolate. The moms declined—“Na baba, too much sugar. Tum log jao!”

Of course the moms had been right. The girls loaded up on so many chocolate pizzas, sundaes, fondues and waffles that they waddled around in a sugar shock for the rest of the day. 

No dance practice that day.

Yes, there was all that practice they needed for their dance at Nikhat and Feroze’s reception. It was great to see Nikhat with Feroze, Najma with Omar and Nuzzhat with Faiz. But both Zoya and Humaira missed their husbands terribly. It gave them new respect for how Nikhat and Najma must’ve felt without their husbands for all those terrible months. How’d they do it? Zoya felt guilty for moping but she couldn’t help it. Keeping a cheerful front for Asad and everyone else was taking its own toll on her.

Memories ran like color … those memories drew blood.

“Iss se achcha toh main New York mein hi thi!” She’d yelled at Asad on their first meeting when he’d nearly run her over. Oh boy, she’d been a hot mess that day.

Zoya smiled at the memory of the day that changed her life forever—changed her address, made her leave New York far behind in another hemisphere. Only she didn’t know it that day. That day she’d been so mad at the 17th century Jahanpanah who had stepped out of his time machine to quote from his Tehzeebpedia—aurat, sharm, gehna etc. etc.

Jeez. That day Mr. Khan had come pretty close to being anointed with some choice Jhansi ki Rani pepper spray.

But Asad hadn’t backed down one bit. He was equally furious at her behaya and badtameez words.

“Agar aapko iss mulk se itni problem hai toh wapas New York kyun nahi chali jaati? Bada ehsaan hoga aapka iss mulk par!” Asad had thundered right back.

Oh really? "Excuse me! Aap koi traffic police hain jo mujhe bataenge ki mujhe kahan jana chahiye!"


A week later she’d ended up in his bed—from which of course he had forcibly ejected her.

How rude.

“Main iss kamre mein pehle aayi thi toh yeh kamra mera hua. New York mein aisa hi hota hai!” she had tried to use a purely illogical arugment against him. She knew she’d been in the wrong but was she gonna let him know it? Na anh!

“Yeh apka New York nahin hai, mera kamra hai,” he’d ground out through gritted teeth. If she didn’t know any better, Asad had come pretty close to hating New York right then.

 

“Your arms used to feel like home. Now I’m homesick.”

Zoya woke up in the middle of night from a dream of smoky shadows and cracked glass. For a frozen heartbeat she felt Asad’s arms around her and then the earth had opened up under her feet; she was falling off a cliff. Her scream sounded loud to her ears but was really just an anguished croak.

Zoya sat up with a start in the dark, hand clutched to her racing heart.

That hilltop had looked too familiar. Hadn’t they taken Zaid there the night before they were to leave for America? 

“Your arms used to feel like home. Now I’m homesick.” 

Who had said those words? Was it her? Or was it Asad, just before her hand slipped from his? Zoya gulped down the water from the glass at her nightstand. She turned to place a hand on Zaid’s heart. He was sleeping, thank god, arms thrown up, lips slightly parted, lids and lashes half-moons of slumbering innocence.

She leaned over to kiss his forehead more for her own sake than his. Zoya rested her forehead against her son’s. 

Why was sleep tormenting her these days? When it came in bursts and starts it dragged with it haunting traces of incomplete touches and unpaired sighs. What she thought was a stubbled cheek was just a book she’d fallen asleep on. A muscled chest was just the sofa arm … a warm breath just the heating vent on at night. That slow smile that made her want to tear her clothes off … was just a sliver of moonlight. When she reached her hand out to touch those familiar lips her fingers grasped thin air.

All these years growing up she’d slept alone and whole in this bed. Then why now did she feel so incomplete, so fractured? It wasn’t as if she was nothing without Asad. She would hate herself if she became one of those women who couldn’t define themselves without their husband or his name. She wasn’t one of those uber-dependent or fragile women made of crystal either. Then why in hell did she miss him so damn much? For twenty two years of her life she’d managed to sleep without him pressed against her back and holding her. For twenty two years of her life she’d managed to go to sleep without feeling the need to put her hand on his chest to feel it rise and fall and know that all was right with the world. 

All this tossing and turning was making her mad. And it was making her burn. In frustration she rolled on her back and dug her heels into the sheets.

… Just like she did when Asad covered her body with his—

She imagined him on top of her, inside her. She imagined crossing her legs possessively at his hips as he rocked them, controlling his thrusts as he stared into her eyes … She saw the silhouetted arc of his muscled back and matched the rhythmic tempo of his hips … she felt his hot breath on her neck as she pushed his hair off his forehead … she heard his words of nasty promises and dirty oaths in her ear and moaned. She saw them roll over on his back and she watched herself ride him—her own back arched now, her bre@sts bouncing high … him cupping them … and she heard herself keen deep in her throat as she came in a rush.

ASAADD!

Did he hear her screaming his name out in her head? Why didn’t he call right away? Couldn’t he touch her hot yearning? Feel it calling out to him? If he reached his arm out wouldn’t he be able to grip her hair in his fist … pull her face closer to his? Feel her lips with his … run his tongue over them … stroke her cheek and chin with a thumb …?

Can’t you feel my ache in your bones? Can’t you hear my cries?

Asad, come to me! Please.

Fresh moisture pooled in the corner of her eyes and dripped down older tear tracks. 

Zoya ran her hand over her charms to calm herself down. Her fingers read each charm from muscle memory. She passed each of them reverently between her thumb and forefinger. It was only after completing eight or nine laps did she fall into an exhausted sleep. This time her charmed bracelet managed to keep those jagged dreams from rising like Zombies through the fissures of her mind. This time her spent body crashed into temporary oblivion.

 

“Uncle, when is Zoya didi coming back?”

Asad smiled. He’d come home to get fresh clothes and this was the second time the street kids had asked him this question in the past 15 days.

It wasn’t long after she’d come here from New York to live in the Khan house when Zoya had befriended these kids to play a rousing game of cricket every now and then—when she wasn’t searching for her father or fighting with a certain Akdu dragon, that is. In those early days he used to frown in disapproval and righteous dismay whenever he came upon her running between wickets—hair flying, fist pumping, squealing like a champ. Even then he had felt reluctant admiration though he’d never admit it—even with a gun to his head.

Sh*it, he’d put a gun to her head.

How could he? He had no right to scare her like that. He’d never be able to get that image out of his head. 


He’d even placed it against her cheek to threaten her. Good god, it was loaded; he’d checked. What if—? Were there bruises on her face the next day? He still remembered that look of disbelief more than terror in her eyes. She couldn't believe he could—heck, he still couldn't believe that he'd done that.  

“Uncle, aren’t you listening? When’s she coming back?”

Initally these boys had scoffed at Zoya when she gave them pointers and asked to join in. Please, what did a girl know about cricket! But this was Zoya. She wasn’t one to give up. She’d persisted . So they’d let her bowl to get rid of her. May be she’d see how lame she was and slink away when they all burst out laughing at her.

But she hadn’t given them a chance to laugh at her. She was tough that way—and didn’t he have the scars to prove it!

They’d watched, slack-jawed in awe at her form, at the grace of her movements. When as the wicket-keeper she caught two trick catches, she was golden. She had dived and ripped her jeans.

And like a certain Mr. Khan, they’d been floored and besotted too.

She became Zoya didi then. And because he continued to frown and scowl most of the time, Asad always remained ‘uncle.’

During her pregnancy she couldn’t play but she was an enthusiastic cheerleader and benefactor often treating them to ice cream or cotton candy. Over the past few months she’d re-joined them—not as often as she’d have liked but enough for them to consider her a part of the team.

“She’ll be back in about 11-12 days,” Asad told them. His own heart pitched at that announcement. Only 10 days left tomorrow. 9, the day after … There were more days she’d been gone than for her to return. Thank you, Allah miyan! 

“Yay,” they cheered echoing his own sentiments. “Why don’t they play cricket in America?” one of them asked.

“Because they’re really backward over there!” Asad kidded. 

They roared with laughter. Over the past few months they’d grown more comfortable with him. “Remind her to get us lots of chocolates,” they threw over their shoulders as they raced off to play some more before their mothers called them in for dinner.

One boy hung back. “Tell her that she better get back for practice soon. We have a match with the Dilbagh Dabangs in three weeks.”

It was cute how they now held 20-20 tournaments with kids from neighboring streets. That too had been Zoya’s doing. She’d negotiated and managed them into teams with names that the boys had voted on. Their team was called the Shamla Sultans. The tournaments were becoming more and more professional, with parents now involved, websites, live scoreboards, rankings, uniforms, kits, reservations of local parks for matches on the weekends and pizza parties to celebrate victories or console losses.

During her pregnancy she’d roped in Asad to be the team coach whenever he had time. After much pleading and cajoling. As much as he pretended to growl at losing half a precious Sunday he secretly loved to play as much as she knew he did.

“Sure,” he said to the boy distractedly.

“I tried your tips and they really worked,” the boy, Milan, continued. “Can you show me more?”

“Right now?”

“If you don’t mind! I want to really improve my batting average.”

Come to think of it, no, he didn’t mind at all. As Asad changed out of his work clothes and later sat huddled between these sweaty kids, joy irradiated him.

The thwack of the ball hitting the bat dead-center was the purest music. Its glorious arc at the full-blooded hook, a symphony. This briefest of moments was exhilarating. Every heartache, every shard of longing fell away. Asad couldn't wait for Zaid to grow up so he could teach him how to play. He came alive as he put the boys through the training drills. Some of these he remembered from his own days of playing for school and college. Others he had researched more recently for Zoya who wanted to inject fun into the proceedings—but of course.

 

No please Allah miyan, not again!

By the end of week three Zoya was convinced that she was going insane. 

Her overwrought and sleep-deprived mind had begun playing tricks on her. That afternoon at Macy’s she had almost run after some random guy thinking it was Asad. He had a similar linen shirt, and the hair was familiar too. What if …? 

Allah miyan, what’s wrong with you, she’d tried to talk herself out of making a giant fool of herself. Get a grip, Zoya. Asad is millions of miles away, 9 hours ahead of New York time. How could he possibly …? But her mind yo-yoed from one improbable sigthing to another. Wait, was that …? 

Shopping was boring. She had come here only to give the girls company. Pretty soon she would just park herself at a Barnes and Noble and browse through a book. Zaid was dozing in his stroller—it was the perfect quiet time her soul craved. She told the girls where she’d be. They understood perfectly and shooed her away. By now everyone knew that dragging Zoya along for shopping was going to be a disaster. She was useless at telling them what looked good or didn’t. She knuckle-dragged and made faces. By the 23rd minute she yawned and groaned and everyone just felt guilty. 

At the bookstore Zoya was able to find just what she’d been craving. It had been ages since she read and laughed with a Stephanie Plum and Lula novel. Finally! She found an overstuffed chair in a secluded alcove and wheeled Zaid’s stroller close. As Zoya settled in Zaid whimpered in his sleep. She put the book on the armrest and unbuckled him. May be she could hold him and read while he napped. She looked up and sucked air. Wait, didn’t that guy stride just like …?

Shut up, Zoya. Remember, he’s 12,314 kilometers away? That’s all of 7651.5 miles. 

When the girls found her an hour and a half later they awwwed in hushed tones. Cameras went up to mass-click pictures of a snoozing mother and child. It was only by resting her cheek against Zaid’s head, breathing in his baby smell, and feeling his little heart pumping away next to her that Zoya had found some semblance of a dreamless sleep. For an hour and half she had found escape from her own fevered imagination. For almost a full 90 minutes Asad’s visions had taken a break from playing hide and seek with her.

 

For the reception Naz had outdone herself. The party hall was magnificient, or at least that’s what everyone told Zoya breathlessly. Aapi had elbowed her in the ribs earlier. “Don’t let everyone know how much you miss Asad. But don’t, khuda ke vaste, do that terrible smile either. It kills me to look at you.”

Anwar had hugged her sideways. “You don’t need to listen to your Aapi. Be as miserable as you want to be. And when you need to run away for a good cry, I’ll hold Zaid for you!”

“Jeeju!” 

“See, now there’s that pretty smile we all love,” Anwar teased. “You can do it, kiddo! Just remember our secret code and you’ll be fine. JeejuMan will come to your rescue each time!”

Zoya laughed a real laugh then.

A long time ago Jeeju had made her swear to a pact. If he pulled at his left ear with his right hand at one of these parties that Zeenat dragged him to because otherwise, “sab sawaal karenge,” then Zoya had to come up and complain about a stomachache or a twisted ankle so that he could take her home. It was the fourth time when Zeenat caught on to this little charade.

She’d been livid.

Only a lot of besura singing from Anwar and Zoya had got her to smile. Because if she didn’t smile they wouldn’t stop. And if they didn’t stop she’d have to listen to that godawful song, “lal dupatte wali tera naam to bata,” for hours and hours on end. With drums. No, thank you very much. 

“So nice to hear you laughing again,” Dilshad kissed Zoya’s forehead. By force of habit she rubbed at some of her kajal and wiped it behind Zoya and Zaid’s ears. “We thought you left those giggles behind in India with Mr. Khan!”

Zoya blushed—at being teased and because even Ammi had been able to see through her fake smiles. Damn, she was lousy at hiding her feelings. Too transparent, that was her. Though Asad would disagree. Those long sunless days before they were together she’d managed to hide her feelings for him pretty well from everyone. Except him. He’d been able to see those reddened eyes covered up with kohl, those smudges under them and the half-moon bruises on the backs of her hands. May be he’d seen those symptoms because her unspoken pain mirrored his own. But then he was the lucky one, wasn’t he? He knew how she felt for him. But she didn’t know that he loved her then. All she knew was that he had rejected her and was engaged to another.

Zoya’s smile drooped. 

Dilshad cupped her face. “C’mon now. You have no right to sulk or be down.” She whispered soothing words in her daughter-in-law’s ears as she had for her grandson a few days ago. “Asad must be missing you too. Even more, in fact! He’s all alone by himself and missing out on all this fun.” Dilshad waved her arm about to include the grandly appointed ballroom. When she saw Zoya’s lips tremble she pinched her cheek. “Do you want everyone to sing to you like we did for Zaid, hmm?” 

“No!” Zoya’s mouth rounded in horror. Oh god, Allah miyan, she’d seriously burst into tears if they did that. 

“Exactly. Besides there’s only a week left—you’ll survive. Now go, Najma’s calling you for the dance. Lao, give Zaid to me. Come raja, come to Dadi. Ammi has to go and dance for Nikhat Phuphi.” 

The girls danced to a medley of songs. Naz and her friends danced too to many catcalls and much enthusiastic applause on a mix of old Hindi songs that was an instant hit. Even Feroze and Faiz’s dad joined in to belt, “O meri zohra jabeen.”

That had everyone on their feet demanding an encore.

“Once more, once more,” they cheered. Omar wolf-whistled as his aunt and uncle did the twist to “Aao, twist karein.” 

Nikhat and Najma performed a surprise dance on “Sasural genda phool,” that had all the moms tearing up. Naz bawled the loudest.

Dilshad and Shireen were thrilled to see their girls become a part of a close-knit family and even more delighted with the larger family of Indians that embraced them so far away from India. Already at the Sangeet and Mehendi they had met all of Naz, Hana and Zeenat’s friends who told raunchy jokes and brought delicious and gorgeously decorated potluck dishes. The food tasted different in America but the sentiment behind it was pure India. Just MA!

The toasts were done. Faiz was the witty emcee often assisted by a rowdy Omar who narrated the story of how FerNi met and became Youtube sensations. They even played the video on the projector to Nikhat's embarrassment. The guests loved it! Feroze and Nikhat gave beautiful speeches thanking all their family that had flown in from different parts of the country and especially India. “We have one last performance for you and then let the real dancing begin,” Feroze announced to whoops and yells from the younger guests.



Zaid had managed to fall asleep in his stroller despite the high volume of the music and cheers around him. It had been a long day. They had let him crawl his heart out at home and his mom hadn’t let him have too long of an afternoon nap. He was pretty tuckered out by 8:30. Along with Dilshad, Zeenat and Anwar, Zoya and Humaira moved to a quieter corner of the room farthest away from the blaring speakers. They watched Nuzzhat mingle with Faiz’s family—lots of cousins and friends. Aww, another one would fly the nest soon and then it would just be the two of them.   

Anwar was all set to pull his disappearing act stunt; Zeenat glared at him. “Just this last performance. Then after dinner we can leave. This time you can use Zaid as a legitimate excuse, OK?”

He sighed but nodded in mute agreement. Fine, he’d behave.

“If Zoya and Humaira want to stay back longer they can,” he added. “You can dance into the night like I know you kids like to.” They had brought two cars just for this reason. 

“Do we know who’s dancing?” Humaira asked.

“Must be cousins from Feroze’s side,” Zoya answered as she checked for the blanket around Zaid’s ears. The more she could muffle the sound the better he would sleep, poor baby. He really had gotten cranky at the end. The tiny sherwani itched … he was tired but didn’t want to sleep because of the fesitivities and overstimulation. Everyone came to pick him up, play with him, tickle or high-five him. They sqeezed his cheeks and kissed him senseless. The sherwani rode up, the pajamas weren’t stretchy, and the dupatta tasted weird no matter how much he sucked on it. What was a boy to do if not cry? It was only crying that got him deposited back into his mom’s arms as people nervously backed away to give them space. His Ammi had held him tight, tucked him into her body just right and walked him to sleep in the lawn outside. It was much quieter here. Through the faint music he had heard her humming close to his ear. He loved this song about a dragon named Puff. Ammi had told him that it was her favorite too when she was small. Zaid felt her drop at least twelve thousand kisses on his head for each kilometer he was away from Abbu and only then did he drift into sleep and dream of riding on Abbu’s shoulders. 

Once he was tucked back into his stroller Dilshad gently patted his chest. “Zoya, I think they’ve served dinner by now. Go get some food before he wakes up,” she reminded her. 

Zoya made a face. “I don’t feel hungry, Ammi. May be later when everyone else eats.”

Zeenat tsked. “Ya Allah, yeh ladki! You’re not eating well these days. This isn’t right. I’ll tell Asad.”

Anwar patted Zoya’s hand but said nothing.

Zoya smiled as she saw a message light up on her phone. Asad! It was a sher he had chosen from Kaifi Azmi this time. She re-read it and frowned. It made no sense to her but hey, the words sure sounded nice:

          “Rasta bhool gaya ya yahan manzil hai meri,

          Koi laya hai ya khud aaya hun maalum nahin.” 

“What do you mean?” she texted back. 

“I love you and am missing you like crazy,” she texted a second message when she didn’t hear back from him. She felt too depressed to add her usual emojis. 

The music started up for the last number and then abruptly turned off. Zoya peered at the dark screen of her phone. C’mon, she willed it to buzz.

Nothing.

There were some technical glitches that seemed to have delayed the dance. The guests forgot about the promised performance. They chatted loudly. Laughter and happy shouts boomed through the hall. When the lights dimmed everyone looked expectantly at the stage. A fog machine bellowed great plumes of purple, green and blue fog—the theme colors of the evening.

“Suno ik thi kaanch ki gudiya,” crooned the playback singer. The people at the front tables roared and clapped.

“… suno ik tha pind ka shera …” the jaunty tempo picked up. 

Zoya didn’t even bother looking too hard at the stage. “There are two guys who just came on,” Zeenat announced for everyone’s benefit. No one paid attention to her. Anwar was checking his phone. Dilshad fussed over Zaid’s blanket as she gently extracted the red plane from his grip. 

“May be the girls will join them later,” Humaira mused, equally distracted but trying to be polite in responding to Aapi because no one else had. 

Zoya put her face against her palm with her elbow resting on the table. 

This song … it was so familiar. Her eyes half-closed. At Feroze and Nikhat’s wedding back home Asad and Ayaan had danced to it as a surprise. She and Humaira had joined them at the refrain of “Jogi maahi heer ranjhana.” 

Girls were screaming at the front of the room. They too craned their necks to see what the big deal was. But their view was blocked. Najma and Nuzzhat had stood up and were cheering. Rashid was standing too and waving wildly. 

“Jogi maahi heer ranjhana,” the speakers thundered around her. 

Funny, her mind was playing tricks on her again. She could have sworn she saw Asad—Nah! Idiot, how could he be here? You thought the same thing yesterday when you saw that guy at the mall. And then at the bookstore. May be Aapi is right. I should eat more so I don’t go batsh*it crazy. 

          “Jogi maahi heer ranjhana

          Sabnu jaake main ye bolna

          Baat bolke …

          Raaz kholna” 

“ZOYA!” Najma came running. Zoya blinked at her. Her mind had closed up. May be she was having a stroke. Could it be low sugar?

“Allah miyan what’s wrong with you?” Tamatar was yelling something at her and shaking her.

Zoya frowned. She looked at Humaira who seemed to be shrieking and jumping too. What? She watched, in slow motion as Humaira bolted toward the stage. Huh? 

“Najma, stop shaking me.” 

“Zoya look,” Najma twisted her face around. “It’s Bhaijaan!” 

Yeah right. 

“What nonsense!” Zoya grumbled. May be everyone else had gone mad too. 

Impatient with Zoya’s sluggish reflexes Najma grabbed her hand and dragged her toward the stage. Zoya looked back at Aapi and Ammi in confusion. They were grinning and clapping wildly. She looked more closely at that guy who had looked familiar.

Asad?

ASAD!

She lifted her lehenga with both hands and ran blindly. People laughed and jumped out of her way. But she came to a crashing halt at the edge of the dance floor. Zoya reached her hand out towards him. That smile … the purply-blue fog swallowed him up. When he reappeared he opened his arms to her.

And Zoya being Zoya ran in the opposite direction away from him.

 

“ZOYA?!!”

She could hear him calling after her. She kept running, unseeing, out the double doors, down the stairs, into the brightly lit lawn. A half hour ago she’d walked the same lawn as she’d sung Zaid to sleep. Now she felt too raw and exposed. She wanted to crawl into and hide in some dark hole. May be if she hid behind that column … it was then that she felt her wrist gripped as she was slammed into a hard chest.

She struggled.

“Zoya, babe what’s wrong? It’s me. Look at me.”

She felt his solid arms around her. Surely this wasn't her imagination?


"Zoya?"

She really looked at him this time. She touched his cheek and flinched at the contact. He was real! And then, with tears raining from her eyes, she traced every beloved contour on that face she had missed so much. Like a blind scholar just introduced to Braille, she read his eyes, his nose, his cheeks, ears, lips and jaw with starved hands. She felt him kiss her fingertips and sobbed, “it’s really you.”

“Of course, it’s me. Oh baby, I’m right here.” Asad gathered her into his arms as she wept harder. “I’m never letting you walk or run away from me. Never again!”

He held her forever. God knows how much later Asad felt a tap on his shoulder. Zoya was still sobbing with her head buried in his chest. 

A smiling but apologetic Dilshad came closer. She pinched his cheek in happy blessing. “He was starting to fuss.” And she handed Zaid to his dad. Zaid rubbed his eyes and blinked them open. He saw his Abbu and blinked again.

“Hi baby,” his Abbu said softly, still holding Zoya with one arm. 

Zaid peered at him and tilted his head like his mom often did. And Dobby. Then that tiny face twisted and Zaid flung himself blindy at Asad and cried great heart-wrenching sobs with his arms wrapped around his daddy’s neck. 

Asad threw his head back and laughed even though his eyes were wet. He’d never been happier as he held his weeping family in his arms.



Song in title:

Tamasha (2015): "Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai"




Aug 2, 2016

Hum Miley Jahan Par, Lamha Thum Gaya (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 9 times)

Chapter 128

  

Later he would ask Zoya why she ran away from him.

All the way over on the longest flight of his life Asad had imagined an ecstatic Zoya launching herself into his arms and how he would spin her around in circles. Everyone would cheer. She would dance with him to the rest of the song because she already knew the steps. They would look deep into each other’s eyes for the finale when he swung her up by her waist.

But then she’d gone and re-directed his carefully cho*reographed rom-com fantasy and turned his surprise upside down. Only Zoya.

Though by now shouldn’t he have known better? 

“For days I kept seeing you everywhere … I thought I was hallucinating again. What if I jumped into your arms and it wasn’t you?” she asked simply. “I would die.” 

He hadn’t thought that she hallucinated too. Her actions made some sense now. He rocked her to him. “Shh, and please, I’d kill anyone whose arms you went leaping into. But Zaid cried so much too …” Asad wondered aloud. 

“He probably was terrified he’d never see you again,” Zoya said softly with fresh tears in her eyes. Asad’s eyes filled too. Who knew the depth of emotions babies felt? Could Zaid really have feared that?

 

In fact it was Zaid’s tears that got the whole surprise thing started.

When Zoya told Raziya about how Zaid was missing his Abbu and how much he had cried that day, a hysterical Raziya first went running to Zainab’s gravesite. Then together they hatched a plan of how to bring a smile to their grandson’s face.

Raziya started off by working on Siddiqui Saheb. 

“Bechara humara Zaid! Kitna roya meri chhoti si jaan!”

Siddiqui Saheb wrung his helpless hands. “My poor baby,” he muttered. “Zoya must’ve been so upset. I wish we could do something …” 

“But of course we can! We can make both Zaid and Zoya smile.” Raziya wiped her tears, sat up straight, and spoke up hopefully. 

“What? How? What can we possibly do?”

She spelled it out for him. Siddiqui’s eyes shone.

“So talk to Asad tonight, OK? And don’t forget to call your travel agent. Abhi!”

At dinner that night she set the ball rolling. She couldn’t wait for them to know, so excited was she. It was hard to sit still. She perched at the edge of the chair eager to hear their reaction. 

“Asad, Ayaan, we have a surprise for you. Please don’t say no.” 

They looked at her expectantly. 

“A surprise?” Ayaan asked. “Yay!” He rubbed his hands together.

Things had really been boring lately with the girls gone and no Zaid to gallivant around with. No teasing, no horse play. Bhai was way too serious. Even Dobby was cranky. 

It was a snoozefest. 

He’d partied with friends despite Humaira’s dire warnings and threats to behave himself but somehow that too wasn’t as much fun. “A surprise? Wow! What is it, Mumani?” 

“We know that you’ve been stressed about work. But right now there’s a slowdown, right? Things aren’t as bad any more. Siddiqui Saheb, aap kuch kahte kyun nahin! Main bolungi to bologe ki bolti hai ...” she huffed. 

Dobby raised his head from under the coffee table. Something was afoot. He could tell by the exicted buzz around the table. He slunk closer and hopped up on the chair next to Asad’s to butt his head against Abbu’s knuckles. What’s up? What’re you planning? We're going back home, right? Right? 

Siddiqui’s eyes gleamed. He too was excited to see what his sons-in-law’s would think. It was a terrific idea after all. 

“We’ve decided that you should take a break for a week from work. If there are any issues Prasad can always let me know …” He saw Asad’s face. 

“A break?” Asad’s brow rose. “I don’t think that’s wise. Everyone’s too skittish right now with how uncertain the situation is.”

Dobby eyed Asad. Abbu was frowning. What happened? Tell meeee.

“Things aren’t going to change any time soon.” Siddiqui continued. “And definitely not in a week. You can always work remotely … stay connected through conference calls and all,” he added. “I can help keep an eye on things here. And your team can take care of the rest.” 

“But … I’m not so sure …” 

Dobby inched closer and peered over at the table edge to look at Nanu. His whiskers twitched in anxiety. Something bad happen? Guys? Give it to me straight.

“Asad, don’t you think that taking a break would be just the sign to show your employees that everything’s OK?” Raziya jumped in. “That they don’t have to worry. Besides, it’ll refresh you. It will help you get a clearer perspective on things. Siddiqui Saheb why don’t you explain it to them in more detail?” She gripped her dupatta tight. Her fingers tapped restlessly on the table and Dobby stared at them. Uh-oh, Chhoti Nani looked upset. He wrestled his way into Asad’s lap and purred in confusion. Asad patted his head absently.

Siddiqui Saheb tried his best to persuade them by echoing Raziya’s sentiments. But Asad wasn’t fully convinced. Raziya couldn’t bear it any more. She burst into tears.

Dobby froze. His tail rose in alarm. Guys, hello? What’re you hiding from me? Is Zaidu OK? Zoya? 

“Zoya had called. She was in tears.” 

Asad’s eyes widened in fear. “What happened? Is everything OK?” Why hadn’t she called him? He grabbed his phone.

He yelped the next minute.

Dobby had dug his claws into Asad’s thigh. He didn’t mean to hurt Abbu; he just couldn’t help himself. Some serious sh*it was going down and suddenly everyone was keeping secrets from him? Nobody was telling him anything? Since when did they not tell him or consult with him? He had noticed that all these stupid things had started happening when Zaid and Ammi went away. Incredibly foolish. 

“No, no, it’s not like that. Nothing’s happened.” Siddiqui rushed to reassure Asad. He hushed Raziya, “kyun darati ho bachchon ko!” She sniffed. Siddiqui turned back to Asad. “It’s just that Humaira’s Ammi has been upset since Zoya told her that Zaid has been missing you a lot.” 

Asad knew that. But Zoya hadn’t told him about how Zaid had sobbed for his Abbu at the Statue of Liberty because he missed him so much. She didn’t want to make Asad feel bad. She only told him about the family singing for Zaid to cheer him up. She’d even sent him the video of that moment.

Raziya wiped her eyes with her dupatta again. “She didn’t want me to tell you. She knew how upset you’d get. Bechare mere bachche. Zeenat told me that Zoya was heartbroken when she saw Zaid crying. She’s not been eating well …” She inhaled and then squared her shoulders. “Bas, bahut ho gaya! I don’t want to listen to your excuses any more. I may not know anything about business but I do know this: You must go. It’ll just be for a week. They need you. And that’s final!” She knew she was being bossy but the moment called for it—if she left it up to the men nothing would get done. “Work can’t be more important than family. Go, please.”

Asad protested. Though only half-heartedly. After hearing about Zaid’s tears and Zoya’s hunger strike the idea of a break to be with his family was beginning to sound better and better. He stroked Dobby’s back. Besides, Aunty was right. A week wouldn’t hurt. And didn’t Zoya always tell him to not be such a control freak all the time? “Have you heard of this word, ‘delegate?’ You’d be surprised how well things can go on without you, Mr. Khan,” she would tell him every now and then whenever they discussed him overdoing things at work.

May be it was time to find out if she was right. 

“Can you imagine the looks on their faces when they see you! Allah miyan, they will be so happy! Mera Zaid khushi se jhoom uthega!” Raziya went on as if she hadn’t heard a word he’d said. “I already bought him a beautiful white sherwani that he can wear for the reception.” She continued to outline her plans to no one in particular. 

But she hammered in her point home with the pièce de résistance: “Don’t you want to see him trying to stand up? Dilshad told me that he’s—”

“But even if we decide to go it’s not going to be easy to get tickets at such short no—” 

“We’ve taken care of that.” Raziya went over to the console and withdrew an envelope from the top drawer. Dobby’s anxious eyes tracked her. “Here. Your tickets are already booked. Now there’s no way you can say no.” 

Asad and Ayaan looked at each other and grinned. May be this was exactly the nudge they needed. Ayaan jumped from his chair with such velocity that it went flying behind him. Dobby yowled and fled from the room. 

“Woohoo!” Ayaan whooped and for the first time in his life he lunged to hug Raziya. He twirled with her in circles. 

Asad laughed at the expression of shy pride and embarrassment on her face.

Siddiqui patted his arm. “Don’t worry about anything here. My office will stay in constant touch with your’s. Any problem and we’ll let you know immediately. But I have a strong feeling that everything will be OK."

 

But was it going to be OK?

When their connecting flight got delayed by three hours at Istanbul Asad had felt a moment of doubt and then rushing panic. They were to land in New York on the day of the reception. If the flight got any later, what if they missed the whole event? What about the surprise that they’d quickly cobbled together?

Back in America only Najma, Omar and Faiz knew about the surprise. 

Najma had championed Raziya’s cause with some major long-distance needling of her Bhaijaan—on a daily basis. But no one else knew. Even Feroze was kept in the dark. When he made that announcement at the party about the last performance of the evening he had no clue that his brother-in-laws would be stepping out from the purple fog—apparated all the way from Bhopal like some Potterverse wizards. And of course, Omar and Faiz, the eternal pranksters and American coordinators of the plan, couldn’t resist one last act after the “Jogi Mahi” repeat performance by Asad and Ayaan and their begums. These wannabe Weasley cousins had nearly disrobed and mooned the audience, loudly proclaiming: “Jahanpanah, tussi great ho. New York ka tohfa qubool karo!”

Naz had chased them off the stage midst the raucous laughter and wild applause. As Tamatar turned redder, Asad had thrown his head back and finally laughed in relaxed abandon.

Najma and Omar had picked them up from the airport and pointed out various landmarks along the way. But instead of looking at the city around him, Asad had looked more at his watch. Tension knotted his insides. Why had he agreed to this surprise nonsense? He couldn’t bear to not meet Zoya and Zaid for another two hours. Thank god he’d remembered to give Aunty’s sherwani for Zaid to Najma—she would make sure that he wore it for tonight.

Ayaan had convinced him to repeat the dance they’d done for Nikhat’s wedding. What an entrance it would be! The steps were already familiar—they could watch the old wedding videos and quickly re-learn them. They wouldn’t even need too much practice. It was much better than learning something completely new. And once the dance began Zoya and Humaira would jump in at exactly the right time with their steps and it would all be M.A. Asad had groaned inwardly but hadn’t objected too much. At least it gave him something to do. Or he’d go stark raving mad waiting to be re-united with his family.

It was at the Ataturk Airport that he had picked up a copy of Rumi’s poems for Zoya as a gift. He’d thumbed through it and marked familiar passages. And it was while waiting for the flight to board to JFK when he’d stumbled across Kaifi Azmi’s lines during a random Google search. 

          “Rasta bhool gaya ya yahan manzil hai meri,

          Koi laya hai ya khud aaya hun maalum nahin.”

It would be perfect—just the right lines to send to her before they made their grand entrance. He couldn’t wait to see the expression on her face ...

 

However belated, he did get to see the much hoped-for expression on her face for the rest of the evening at the reception. Once Zoya was done crying and wiping her tears with his handkerchief, she glowed. She couldn’t stop smiling. She didn’t even need to repair her make-up to make her eyes starry or cheeks rosy. Like that song, she really could’ve danced all night and still have begged for more.

And surprise, surprise, so could Asad.

 

The DJ played songs that the old Asad would’ve scowled at in another lifetime but they didn’t even faze him now. He danced with Zaid and Zoya in his arms to “Baby doll” and “Chittiyan Kalainyan,” and “Hangover,” without a single frown. The more un-Jahanpanah songs with mad lyrics like “ladki beautiful kar gayee chull,” the more he swayed and smiled. But did he even know the words of the songs he was dancing to? Or care? Probably not. Besides, who could blame Bollywood for transporting them to India in the heart of New York minus the twenty-hour air travel? And thanks to Bollywood didn’t some songs fit the occasion just perfectly? Like that song the DJ played which echoed that giddy bliss they were feeling … Whether it was “zoobie doobie, zoobie doobie nache kyun, paagal stupid mann.”

Or … 

          “Aa raat bhar, aa raat bhar

          Jaaye’n na ghar, jaaye’n na ghar

          Iss raat mein, beete umar, saari umar

          Toh chal, chale’n, gire’n, pade’n, uthe’n, urre’n

          Aa tujh ko laga dun mein mere par

Haan raat bhar …

Thank you DJ miyan, for making it just M.A.

 

Though for a heartstopping moment it had seemed that they’d never be able to get together, raat bhar. Because it must’ve taken at least an hour for everyone to be properly introduced to Asad and for repeat requests to hear the stories and plans of how they'd pulled off their grand surprise. Even Feroze didn’t know? How’d they managed that? Why did they wait so long to come? Why not come a day ahead? Aren’t you jet lagged? 

And through all those questions Asad and Zoya had only shared torn glances and smiled promises across the room. Not miles anymore, just meters apart.

But it may as well have been miles …

They’d barely had a chance to say more than two sentences to each other. Barely had time to share a kiss …

The things he wanted to whisper in her ear! It was so hard to bite back those words. So hard to not shout them from the rooftops.

And the things she imagined him saying to her!

When would she feel his breath at her ear, his warmth on her skin? Would he never get to her side so she could slide her fingers through his to hold on firmly and never let go?

Her heart flipped … and then it sank again.

She watched Najma drag him away to yet another group of relatives.

Zoya’s impatient gaze followed him from one cluster of guests to another. But her eyes softened as she watched a merry Zaid bouncing in his Abbu’s arms. The nap and his dad’s surprise had obviously recharged him; he waved shyly to each guest as they gushed over him. When he didn’t hide his face in his dad’s neck, he grinned a toothy grin and dimpled deeply—ecstatic to be reunited with his daddy.

He was never letting go either.

Zoya giggled as she watched Asad smooth the tiny sherwani. Already she could see the tail-end of Zaid’s dupatta peeping from Asad’s side pocket. Her eyes drank them in. Oh god, that sight was pure heaven. Their son’s scarf stuffed in Asad’s pocket was one of those small things she may have taken for granted if they were in India. But here, at this moment, it seemed nothing short of a miracle. It was one of those treasures that she’d promised to herself she’d take a mental photograph of.

Click. 

Anwar tapped her shoulder and she tore her eyes away.

“Go rescue him,” he teased when Zoya looked up at him. “He’s dying.” 

“Anwar!” Zeenat scolded him. 

“What! You know I’m right. Asad came all this way to meet Zoya and Zaid not some door daraaz ke khalu or phuphi.” 

Dilshad laughed softly as she watched Zoya blush. She found the mock-fights between Zeenat and Anwar hilarious. And she particularly loved how Anwar always took Zoya’s side. She now understood why Zeenat complained of both Saali-Jeeju ganging up on her. How she wished Najma had that growing up—a loving father who spoiled her rotten. Who always took her side even against her own mother. Sure, Asad had been a doting big brother. But he wasn’t much older himself and as much he loved her, his love had been strict and came with a heaping side of super-protectiveness. Zoya was lucky to have Zeenat and Anwar in her life.

Dilshad sighed.

And she and her family were lucky to have Zoya walk into their lives. It was as if they had been waiting for her to fly in from New York and yank off that dusty, cobwebby chadar of quiet despair and pain—to let the sun in again. Thank you, Allah miyan, tera lakh lakh shukar hai. And in a way hadn’t she come to say thank you to New York too? And that’s why she was glad that Asad had finally come. What was the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty? Something about “huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” It was as if they were playing a game of statue waiting for Zoya to breathe new life into them … yearning to break free.

Zindagi ...

Tum ayee, mano zindagi mil gayee, she’d said to Zoya a long time ago.

Once during one of the their usual spats, Zoya had teased Asad, “my name means ‘zindagi.’ Yours probably means ‘anti-matter’ that’s why you’re so volatile!” She had laughed in his face as he’d gritted his teeth uselessly.

Dilshad smiled.

Bhopal ka gussa and New York ki hansi … yes, it was meant to be.

She laughed as she saw Zaid do a happy wiggle in Asad’s arms as if reading his Dadi's mind and agreeing with her wholeheartedly.

 

Finally Asad was able to make it back to their table.

This time Zaid lunged to come to Zoya without a fuss. He opened his arms and settled in his mom’s lap. Earlier he had refused to let go of his Abbu’s collar. Not even for Ammi. Nope, he was going to go wherever Abbu was going. But now he no longer worried that if he wasn’t in Abbu’s godi then Abbu would disappear. Aaa’ez well. He felt it in his tiny bones.

Zoya’s pulse leaped as Asad’s fingers grazed hers during the baby exchange. It was another of those mental click-worthy moments. She lowered her head to hide her face. Dilshad cleared one of the chairs and signaled Asad to sit next to Zoya. 

Seeing Asad so close thrilled Zaid too. He changed his mind—he wanted to be back in Abbu’s godi now. So his parents played the baby hand-off game again. Again Zoya blushed.

“Asad, now tell us everything!” Zeenat begged. “Itna bada surprise! How long were you planning this? Zoya, you didn’t suspect at all?”

And as Asad filled them in on the details Zoya spooned a little bit of rice and palak-paneer into Zaid’s mouth who was squirming in his dad’s lap. He had just finished munching on a tomato slice. Asad held Zaid’s exploring hands often wiping crumbs and drool from the tiny chin.

Asad looked at Zoya in surprise when she raised a spoonful to feed him too.  

“You haven’t eaten anything, have you Mr. Khan?” she asked. “C’mon, have a bite.” 

“She’s right, kha lo beta,” Dilshad encouraged. 

And in the midst of telling them about how Raziya convinced them to come to New York, her teary blackmail, Siddiqui Saheb’s assurances, how he feared they wouldn’t be able to get here in time for the party, how they had decided to only tell Najma, Omar and Faiz, Asad let his wife feed him in between feeding Zaid. He didn’t realize he was starving.

And he didn’t realize how intimate and natural this felt.

When Zoya raised the napkin to wipe the corner of his mouth Asad froze. Her eyes had snagged at his lips. His breath quickened and he shifted in the chair. Even if he couldn’t read her mind she must’ve read his. She ducked her head and pretended to fuss over Zaid.

Ahh babies. Sometimes they were just the perfect cover for their horny parents, weren’t they? Zaid laughed and clapped as he saw his dad dropping food as Ammi fed him. He loved this new game when Ammi pretended to feed Zaaf and then fed Abbu instead.

“HEY CHAMP, there you are!” 

Zaid whipped his head around and clapped even more when he spied his favorite Chachu. Fistbumps and an alien code language followed; Zaid beamed. They had met briefly before each was swept away in opposing directions for a flurry of duas and salaams. Zaid raised his arms to be lifted and worshipped by another one of his favorite peeps.

But Asad was reluctant to let go of his son.

Of the many reasons to hold on to Zaid, the biggest one was that once his hands were free he’d have to feed himself.

And he was so enjoying having Zoya feed him.

It was slow, smoky, erotic torture.

Each time her hand came closer he wanted to kiss it, bite and lick those fingertips. Each time he opened his mouth to take a bite he heard the faintest of gasps from her as if she wanted the same; he couldn’t look away from her lips. That pout was even more pronounced—he could’ve sucked on it and begged for more. When she bit her lip because some of the rice grains fell from the raised spoon he nearly groaned out loud—it was the subtlest PDA they could get away with under everyone’s noses before they fell to eating each other up.

But the Chacha-bhatija bro-time would put a damper on this subtle lovefest. With no Zaid to hold there would be no excuse for her to continue feeding him. And he wouldn’t be able to hear her sharp intake of breath or soft moan each time she leaned in and he brushed his thumb against her arm or wrist. There would be no excuse for their chairs to be so close together. They wouldn’t be able to gaze into each other’s eyes each time she raised the spoon to his mouth. His rushing blood would miss her closeness. This rekindling of their spoon-plate po*rn would be hopelessly terminated.

Ayaan hoisted Zaid in his arms and easily straddled him across his shoulders. Off they went to jumpstart new adventures, chart new frontiers. Asad sighed, suddenly bereft. He scooted his chair deeper under the table and frowned down at his plate. What a bummer. Suddenly the food didn’t look as appetizing any more. Zoya tried shifting her chair away but he grabbed her hand under the table. She went dead still and then nearly moaned aloud when he scr*aped a lazy thumbnail across her palm. He squeezed her hand and laced his fingers with hers. When he raised a spoonful of food to feed her instead, she looked at him in confusion. Asad grabbed her hand tighter when she tried to squirm free. 

“You haven’t been eating well I hear,” Asad said co*cking an innocent eyebrow. He had her right hand trapped—even if she wanted to eat by herself she couldn’t. Zoya’s gaze lowered and she smiled shyly before leaning in to eat from the proffered spoon. 

She smiled not because of that slow curve of his lips or because everyone else at the table was smiling that “awwn, so cute,” smile at them. She smiled because suddenly she remembered Mangalpur.

Suddenly she was back at Apna Dhaba dressed in a green bridal suit, handcuffed to Asad, dupatta hiding their hands … and he was feeding her. That was the first time when she’d seen a gentler, kinder side of him—directed solely at her. And that was perhaps the moment when she’d started to fall hopelessly in love with him.

Even Aarti and Yash had smiled the same smile: Awwn, so cute. “Aap dono mein kitna pyaar hai. Khana khatey samay bhi ek doosre ka haath nahin chhod rahein hain.”

Hand cuffs … that alien flippy thing her stomach had done when he'd leaned in to … a scarred initial …

Manglapur—the crucible of their love story ... the handcuffing of their muqaddars ...

Apna Dhaba to New York …

Zoya’s eyes glazed as she recalled angry words from the spats of their tempestuous past.

“Isse achha main New York mein hi thi!” (Not!) 

Old words shifted into new significance … and reshaped the impressions from the past … 

“Agar aapko iss mulk se itni problem hai toh wapas New York kyun nahi chali jaati? Bada ehsaan hoga aapka iss mulk par!” (Haha, dream on Mr.Khan!) 

“New York mein aisa hi hota hai!” 

“Yeh aapka New York nahin hai, mera kamra hai!”

Déjà vu had never felt so right … or so se*xy. She could seriously do this raat bhar.

She leaned in to take another bite and blushed when Asad winked at her. He was channeling Mangalpur too.

  

Zoya cursed herself for not having anything se*xy to wear tonight.

All her fu*ck-me lingerie was back home in India. So she improvised like any good girl gone bad would: she unearthed an embroidered kurti that she’d worn in her virgin days with a tank top underneath. (Thank you Allah miyan that Aapi had made her clean out her closets and box up her stuff. At least now she knew exactly which box to upend to find love supplies that she could improvise to entice her husband). The net kurti was ivory, deliciously see-through, and as Stephanie Plum would say, barely covered her hoohah. It would be perfect. A spritz of her favorite spicy perfume that drove Asad nuts, a swipe of mascara and lip gloss and she was ready to hit the road. Her body was already caught up with the fantasies in her head; it had already started to melt and musk even as she placed her hand on the doorknob. She could almost hear Al Green crooning: 

          Here I am, baby, come and take me

          Take me by the hand

          Show me.

          Here I am, baby

But then Zoya laughed softly when she emerged from the bathroom freshly showered, lotioned and perfumed. She had even posed seductively in the doorway and re-fluffed her hair. She shouldn’t have bothered.

Nice going, Zoya.

Idiot, you shouldn’t have taken so long. How much time had she wasted in trying to excavate her princess boa from the depths of another box? Just because she wanted to revive her “bijli girane main hoon ayee” act for her husband.

 

Oh well, there would be no bijli girana or girane wali tonight.

Damn.

Déjà vu, hello! Where are you? Couldn’t you have stuck around for a little bit longer? 

She could’ve kicked herself.

She should’ve listened to Asad when he had cornered her earlier trailing her eager skin with soft kisses and nicks. But no, she had wanted the moment of their international mating to be perfect. 

“I’ll just be back in 10 minutes, promise! By then Zaid too will have fallen asleep.” 

“No—-” He’d nuzzled that pulse at her throat as his urgent hands molded her body to his.

“Please,” she’d begged. 

He’d let her go with a long drawn-out sigh. Very reluctantly. 

And now? Here she was all dolled up for her New York suhaag raat and there her husband was … fast asleep.

She sighed as she cast a fond eye on the bed.

When she’d stepped out Zoya was rewarded with yet another frameable dad-son sight. A shirtless Asad lay sprawled on his back with Zaid sleeping on his bare chest. Aww, both her Desi boyz were tuckered out: Zaid after the most exciting day of his little life and Asad from the longest flight, and lambi-est judai and reunion.

Hand to her heart she watched Asad. An arm was flung over his head—didn’t Zaid sleep like this too? And with his other arm he held Zaid to him, palm flat against the baby’s back. If she wasn’t worried about waking them up she’d have kissed them both, so cute they looked.  

Zoya looked around her room. Asad had been too tired to say much when they’d returned from the reception. He’d had eyes and hands only for her, and she—-stupid idiot, she scolded herself for the nth time.

But now she worried about the sleeping arrangements. How were they all going to fit on her bed? It was much narrower than the one back home. Back home Zaid had his own crib but here he was sharing the bed with his mom … 

She went back to rummage around in her closet for an old sleeping bag to spread out on the rug next to the bed. She could sleep on the floor and the boys could have the bed. Thank god she’d thought of getting extra sheets, pillow and comforter from the linen closet earlier. But before turning the light out Zoya gently extracted Zaid from his dad’s arms and tucked both of them in.

“Shh,” she soothed Zaid as he fussed at being separated from his Abbu. Asad sighed and turned over on his side. She kissed his temple after covering him up. She knew she’d sleep well tonight. Just having Asad a foot away from her made her world right. She didn’t realize she had echoed Zaid’s fervent wish: aal iz well. 

And she did. Sleep well that is.

It was around 4 or 5 in the morning when she felt Asad slide in next to her under the comforter and nuzzle her neck. His hands were already exploring under the kurti and she was already smiling.

“Good girl,” he breathed as he encounterd warm, bare flesh.

She shivered.

This! Oh god, how much had she missed this.

“I missed you so much!” 

“I missed you more!” 

There were no coherent sentences after that. Or thoughts. Just gasped words and jagged hisses, soft cries and whispered names … their hungry hands ripped away all barriers. Their bodies surged to meet and reacquaint themselves with each other. Fingers talked … breaths tangled. 

Asad groaned as he squeezed her bre*asts. “You’re thinner,” he complained before tugging at a nipple. His hand slid south to cup her intimately. He wanted to touch her all over, all at once. That familiar liquid heat blazed and shimmered through her. Zoya’s head and hips thrashed as he stroked her slick flesh. Her wetness on his fingers made his blood pound. Asad shifted his mouth to her neck and sucked hard; she came undone. He felt her go from silk to molten satin. But he wasn’t done with her yet. That quick orga*sm was just a hello; it needed to be rewarded with a second, slower one.

But not if Zoya had her way. “Asad please, I need you!”

Fingers scalp-deep he tugged her head back. “Like I needed you last night?” He continued to ravage the pulse at the base of her throat and moved lower. And lower.

“I’m so sorry for last night. You were right! I should’ve listened to you. Ple—!”

“Shh,” he hushed as his teeth nicked her inner thigh. He was going to mark her, pepper her with love bites as payback for the last time she’d done it before leaving him all alone in India. Too much time had elapsed since he’d savored her creamy skin and heard her whimpering in helpless desire. Zoya’s hips bucked wildly as she felt that mouth rebrand her as his. The snatches of role-playing threats he growled against her skin inflamed her higher. Behind her closed eyelids she watched their entwined bodies from above. He was the customs officer. Did she have anything to declare?

Darts of pleasure shot up through her as she felt the firm pressure and swirl of his tongue. “Oh god, Asad—! Yes officer, I do have something to decla—”

No, he wasn’t convinced; he would do a thorough inspection first to ensure no contraband was smuggled aboard ... an item by item inventory was necessary before he stamped her passport. It was standard procedure. There would be no mercy. His hands squeezed her butt as his mouth blew gently on her thrumming flesh. Zoya's neck arched as she felt herself start to unravel. And he knew it too. Just a little nudge, a flutter of his tongue, and she'd tip over. 

“Oh my god, oh my god Asad, oh my—” Another satiny gush and she fell back limp. She jerked one last time as he scra*ped a thumbnail on the underside of her bre*ast. What was this, her dizzy mind wondered not for the first time. How could this feel so new, so right each time? 

Zoya's eyes fluttered open and she saw him loom over her. She cupped his cheek. But as Asad slithered up to settle between her legs she pushed back against his shoulders. “Not so fast, Mr. Khan,” she panted and smirked up at him as she urged him on his back.

 

“Zoya—” 

“Shh, it’s my turn for an inspection, officer,” she giggled and stroked his hard length. "Just doing my civic duty to check a foreign national before you enter my country." He felt her hand encircle and grip him and all admiration for her wordplay fled his mind. The touch and feel of her hand's firm strokes flooded his mind instead. Anticipation made him taut.

Zoya loved hearing him groan; sliding her hand up she pressed her thumb to the ridge and traced that veined velvet. He pulsed against her hand.

“Zoya,” he moaned.

She had yet to feast on him and touch him to her heart’s content. Zoya gazed up into his eyes as she skimmed a silken bead at his tip and deliberately licked her finger. Another long groan dragged out of him. She wanted to hear each bitten off oath, each hiss of his. She wanted to hear him beg. 

And he did. 

She let her tongue tease and taste him. When she took him in her mouth his hips twisted off the sleeping bag. His fingers snarled in her hair as he felt her swallow.  

“Zoya—babe!”

And she was merciless too. Her tongue too swirled and fluttered, teasing him, tormenting … doing that thing he loved … slowly and surely driving him to the edge. 

This time she slithered up his hips to take him inside her. He loved to watch her bounce on him, her bre*asts, her glorious bre*asts, rising with each rebound. But right here, right now by god, he needed her under him and in one swift move Asad rolled and pinned her under him. 

“It’s been too long!” He muttered as he thrusted deep inside her.

“A whole twenty five days!” Her grateful knees hugged his hips. 

“And twenty five miserable nights.” He bit her neck as he followed up with shallow thrusts that always drove her crazy. Deep ones for him. Shallow again for her. A tilt, and shallow again ... Zoya mewled. Deep, deep, shallow, shallow, shallow … deep, deep, deep, deep, deep—

They gazed into each other’s eyes willing them to stay wide open. She saw the strain on his face and feathered her fingertips down his back. She wanted to claw his butt, cross her legs behind his waist but he wouldn’t let her. The pain on his face intensified and she knew he was close to coming. Her own org*asm was mounting … it was coming, rumbling and splashing through; she began to arch. 

“Look at me, babe,” Asad grabbed her head as he rocked her.

“Asad, I can’t … nno!” Her eyes were wild.

“Yes!”

Her eyes pricked and felt herself melt once again. “I love you! Oh my god, Asadddd!”

His heart thundered against her body as he crashed on top of her. 

“I love you more,” she heard him sigh in her ear.

 

“Like Mangalpur,” she said a little later.

“Hmm?” Asad’s heart still raced. 

Zoya snuggled in closer to fan her palm over his chest. “That night in Apna Dhaba when you accidentally pulled me off the bed on top of you?”

“Mmm, I love that Mangalpur moment. What about it?”

“I meant that this reminded me of that—me on the floor this time, you up on the bed and then in the middle of the night you ended up on top of me!”

That slow micro-smile curved his lips again. That night, that memory had a special place in their hearts. “No, it’s more like the second time when we broke the bed and slept on the floor, you mean.” He stroked the fading stretch marks on her belly. In the faint morning light they’d gleamed silver as he’d traced them with his tongue. “You were pregnant then.” 

She giggled. Ah yes, she remembered. They’d played Batman and Wonder Woman that second night in Mangalpur. The forlorn Apna Dhaba bed had surrenderd to Dobby’s kabza instead; they just weren't meant for it. 

 

“O. Henry once said ‘New York would be a wonderful city…if they ever finish it!’” the cruise tour guide announced. She was pointing out New York’s skyline and waved toward the tower cranes still altering and updating that vista. 

“Wow, is that a Lamborghini going up?” Humaira asked. 

“That’s just crazy,” Ayaan shouted against the wind. Everyone just nodded. They had no words to add. 

They were doing a New York architecture tour by boat and the guide had just pointed out the sky garages at 200 11th Avenue in Manhattan. Yes this was crazy but hey, it was classic New York. Each ultra-posh unit in this building had a sky garage where you drove into a car elevator at street level and then parked next to your apartment or penthouse on whichever floor that happened to be. The glass elevator showed Maseratis, Lamborghinis and Ferraris riding up and down brazenly visible for all the world to see.

“There’s no horizontal space in Manhattan, guys,” Zoya reminded him. “It’s only 23 square miles! So the only way to build is up.”

“But parking your car on the 5th floor? Isn’t that a bit much?” 

“What happens if there’s a power failure?” Humaira asked.

“Then they’re scre*wed,” Ayaan muttered. He was rewarded with a slap upside his head by Asad. Ayaan ruffled his hair. “Bhaijaan c’mon, you know I’m right!” 

“Ayaan, these are some of the richest people in the richest country in the world. You don’t think they have a plan B in case of a power failure?” Asad said.

Ayaan made a face. The girls laughed. He was just trying to be funny. And contrarian as usual. He had found the tour interesting for the first 40 minutes. After that all the tall buildings kinda blended into one another. He didn’t care as much as Asad about the Art Deco and Beaux Arts style—whatever the hell they were. He didn’t get the big deal about the Flatiron bulding. He had other things on his mind. Like how could he convince Bhaijaan to visit a club with the girls?

But Asad couldn’t look away. Brooklyn Bridge’s gothic piers … The trademark spires of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings he’d seen a million times in pictures, books, movies and textbooks. But to see them come alive, change color and scr*pe a proud sky’s underbelly was breathtaking. While Ayaan had loved Times Square and the Wall St. iconic bull Asad wanted to visit the Guggenheim museum designed by one of America’s greatest architects: Frank Lloyd Wright. New York wasn’t just a fashion capital when it came to design it was a pioneer and trendsetter in architectural innovation too. He had studied these designs in college! The Chicago school, the International styles I,II and III … all of these were in those thick textbooks, those hours of exams … 

And here they were, spread out before him. Glorious. Touchable. 

… The most famous skyline in the world. And the history … Sure, as Indians you could make fun of America’s lack of a history but you couldn’t put down what they’d achieved in this brief time. Yes, there were dark chapters in this young history but then no nation was free of such darkness or closeted skeletons.

He could watch this forever. Each view was new with the changing light. Asad already had a list of buildings he would love to tour … some of Frank Gehry’s structures were on that list. And the new stuff he was reading and researching about—innovations in green architecture. If only there was more time …  

A hand resting on the rail Zoya watched Asad’s face in profile through her sunglasses. A dimple flashed. He was so loving this! This was Disneyland to him. She slipped her hand into his and squeezed. If Humaira and Ayaan weren’t here she would’ve even reached up to give him a quick peck on his mouth. Because hey, this was one of the best perks of being in America—no one stared at you, no one passed comments, no one tried to shame you for being in love.

It was one of the things Najma had raved about too a million times since she got here. 

“You can wear anything here, do anything and no one cares. Bra-strap showing? Who cares! So liberating man, to not worry about comments and looks. When they make eye contact they smile. It took me some time to get used to that and reciprocate.” 

Zoya had laughed. “Well in California, sure they smile. In the Midwest too they’re really friendly. But beware people in New York City—ain’t nobody’s got no time to smile!”

“Omar says the same about LA! You know, on the drive from the airport, the first thing Omar warned me about was—don’t stare like an Indian. Americans get offended. And then some nutjob might just pull out a gun!” 

“Oh my god, Feroze told me the same thing!” Nikhat piped in. The girls had warned their parents too. And then discussed the phenomenon among themselves. “Do we all tend to stare a bit in India?” Nuzzhat wondered. 

Zoya giggled. “That’s hilarious! I noticed it the moment I landed in India. And it’s not just men but women will look you up and down too—to judge what you’re wearing, who’re you with, what you’re doing. It freaked me out earlier. Now I wonder if I do it too!” 

“Especially when you’re stopped at a red light. In India everyone looks into everyone else’s car!” Najma hooted. “Oh god, how many times did I do that?” 

Now Shireen and Dilshad were echoing some of the thoughts and remarks of their daughters when they’d first stepped on American soil.

“Oh my god, where are the people?” Najma had asked Omar on her first morning as she looked out from the apartment window. She could only see cars for miles and miles. Only a couple of people here and there. Cars zipping around with only one person in each of them. What was that all about? 

“What do you mean?” Omar had asked not understanding the question at all.

“But no one’s on the street!” Najma tried to make him see how odd that was. At this time of day in India the streets were a veritable carnival by comparison. 

“Everything is ulta-pulta here,” Najma went on. The light switches turned on and off the wrong way. Same with the faucets.

“No, everything’s ulta-pulta in India,” Omar had told her with a typical American’s swagger. 

“Ya Allah, itna bada alu?” Shireen had asked at the grocery store that stretched for miles. The onions were just as huge. Did you see the size of those lemons? Hamare India ke char lemons fit ho jayein! So many varieties of apples, tomatoes and cucumbers? Mexican cucumbers? And Persian ones too? But why didn’t all the veggies taste like they did in India? Something was surely missing. 

Laughing, Zoya lifted Asad’s hand to her lips as she put the mysteries of India and America behind her. They watched New York from the water. Dusk was falling. Soon the city lights would set the skyline ablaze to kick up another flamboyant nightshow. Zaid kicked his feet and swung his legs in the baby carrier attached to his daddy’s front. He watched Khala rest her head on Chachu’s shoulder. They’d retreated to the seats in the back. Abbu put his arm around Ammi and pulled her closer. Together they dropped a kiss each on his head. Zaid blew bubbles making contented cooing sounds. He was seriously loving Noo Yawk more now that Abbu was here. He pointed and waved again at Stachoo of Wibety. She had watched out for Abbu and brought him to Zaaf. She was his new best friend. If she could only meet Dobby. But where was Dobby? 



Exactly, where was Dobby?

Dobby was not a happy camper, thank you very much. Raziya had called to find out if the boys had reached OK, how did everyone like my surprise, and tell me about every detail. By the way, Dobby had slashed the curtains in the living room, she reported. And he was growling at everyone. Then yesterday he had sneaked outside and got himself stuck in a tree. Poor Wajid had scratches to show for rescuing the little devil. The couch was fraying too under a stealth assault. 

“Bas, ab jaldi aa jao,” Raziya sniffed. “Siddiqui Saheb and I, and of course Dobby—we’re missing you all so much. Ghar kabristan lagta hai without you all and especially mera Zaid.” 

She had a thousand and one questions about Zaid—is he eating well? Has he stood up yet? How did he react when he saw Asad? Why did you let him play with that dog in that photo? Did you make sure that dog had all his shots updated? When are you taking him for his allergy test? Is that really necessary? Won’t it hurt? Why must you all go out everyday? Don’t you think he needs a thicker jacket? Main bhej doon?

“Aunty you should have also come,” Zoya told her for the hundredth time. “Then you wouldn’t get so worried. I miss you too.”

“No, someone needs to stay here. Can’t leave both houses empty like that.” She would go to the Khan house every other day to supervise cleaning and just give it a lived-in look so that neighbors and passersby would know that the house wasn’t sitting vacant. Dobby went with her to re-sniff all the rooms. On the first visit he had put his head back and yowled to let his displeasure know. 

Allah meow’n where was everybody? 

What was going on?

“OK, but next time you have to promise that you will come with us! I want to show you around, the school I went to, introduce you to my friends, take you all over …”

Raziya’s eyes prickled as she listened to Zoya chatter away about the wonderful things they would do together. That guilt sometimes came raging back with the force of a rip tide. If Zainab was here … if … 

She sniffed. 

“Aunty. Is everything OK?”

“Haan haan, don’t worry about me. And would you take me to one of those Broadway musicals I hear about so much?” 

“Of course! You know what, I want so badly to watch the musical based on ‘Bend it Like Beckam!’” 

“What’s that?” Raziya asked. 

“Arre Aunty, you haven’t seen that film? OK, first thing when we come back we’ll watch that movie together. And then we’ll watch that other movie by Gurinder Chhadha—‘Bride and Prejudice.’ You have to see it—it’s hilarious!”

Raziya was glad to hear of these plans. Soon they would all be home. Just another week. Then she would watch a thousand movies with Zoya. She would hold Zaid to her heart and then sing to him while she rubbed ghee and badam on his head. She would take him to visit his Nani and together they would drape a phool chadar on the stone ... Should she get him a new tawiz? But she’d already put one on him to ward off all evil eyes in America … 

“Aunty?”

“Hunh?”

“I said, what would you like me to bring back for you from here?”

“Lo, yeh bhi koi poochne ki baat hai? Mere Zaid ko mere paas le ao! Bring yourself back for me from there. And then never ever leave again for a long, long time. But then that wouldn’t be fair to Zeenat and Anwar saheb. Unka bhi to haq hai. Bas jaldi jana and come back jaldi too each time.” She wiped her eyes which had become damp at the thought of Zoya going again. “OK, I have to go now.” She laughed. “Dobby has ripped the chair cover in Siddiqui Saheb’s study.” 

“Allah miyan what’s wrong him!” Zoya slapped her forehead. That used to be Abbu’s favorite chair. 

Raziya started laughing. “What’s wrong with him? What’s wrong with you? He’s an animal—how else is he going to express himself? Bechara, he’s just missing you all terribly, that’s it.” 

“Aunty please, woh bechara nahin hai!” 

“Kyun nahin hai? First you and Zaid left and now Asad’s not here. Ayaan too. He feels abandoned. How does he know that you’ll return? In his mind he’s probably wondering if you will ever return. He calms down only when Siddqui Saheb sits with him in his lap to watch the news. And then at night he curls up on Asad’s kurta. It probably smells like him.” 

“Oh god,” Zoya groaned. Poor Aunty and Abbu having to deal with a badly behaving Dobby. But poor kitty—acting out to speak his mind. She totally got why he would curl up on Asad’s kurta—she would too. Thank god she had already bought a cute collar and a toy for Dobby Miya-oon. Well OK, three toys but Asad didn’t have to know that.

 

“What’re you humming?” Asad whispered next to her ear. Another ten or twelve minutes and they’d be back at the pier. New York glowed molten. Zaid had fallen asleep and was tucked in his stroller.

Zoya laughed softly. It was the same song she’d been humming for two days now since the party. “Raat bhar …” just kept popping into her head at the oddest moments. It was in her head the moment she woke, on her lips before she fell asleep in Asad’s arms.

“Toh chal, chale’n, gire’n, pade’n, uthe’n, urre’n …” she sang brushing noses with him. 

He shifted to hold her from the back, arms wrapped at her waist as the cruise boat zoomed in closer and closer upon the city. Zoya spread her arms wide and flung her head back to look up at the faded stars. They were no match for New York City’s lights. “Iss raat ki ho na seher … haan raat bhar …” She had probably mixed up the lyrics but who cares. There was a line about “chaand ko chakh le, taaron ko pee le,” and that’s what mattered. It’s how she felt. Glorious. Unstoppable. On top of the world.

She lowered her arms over his. “Asad?” 

“Hmm?” 

“Have I told you how happy I am?”

“Umm hmm.”

She giggled and turned in his arms.

“And how much I love you.” 

He nibbled at her ear and she hissed. “No, not in the past hour or so, you haven’t.”

“Aww. How careless of me.”

“Mmm hmm. Very.” He felt just as drugged and high as her.

“Will I be punished for it?” 

He chuckled. “Definitely.” 

“Tonight?” 

“Raat bhar …”

 

 

Song in Title: 

Dilwale (2015): "Gerua"







Sep 19, 2016

Le Chal Wahan Jo Mulk Tera Hai (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 8 times)

Chapter 129

  

“There he is! There’s my tiger!” Asad held his arms open and Zaid leaped down into them from the bed. This had become his new American ritual. It had started that first day when Zaid woke up and discovered himself all alone in the bed. He’d blinked in confusion at first. Where was Ammi? And Abbu? Had it been just a dream? Didn’t Abbu hold him last night? The party … the dancing …

His face began to scrunch up.

But then he heard soft whispers and giggles coming from somewhere in the room. They sure sounded like Ammi and Abbu. But where were they? This called for a Zaid Miyan and Dobby Miya-oon investigation. But Dobby wasn’t here. No matter. He decided to solve this mystery on his own and went exploring by crawling around the bed. There were pillows here … and here … He went straight to the edge of the bed and peeked. And a wide grin spread on his face.

“Hi sweet baby,” his Ammi smiled up and waved at him from the sleeping bag on the floor. 

“Come to Abbu,” Asad held out his arms and Zaid jumped into the air to be caught by his daddy. This was a fun new game! Zaid gurgled as Asad kissed him and passed him on to be kissed by his mom. Yes, this was just M.A. even if Abbu’s stubble itched and tickled only a bit.

Zaid kicked his legs in glee.

“Ufff!” his dad yelped and sucked air the next second. 

Zoya hefted Zaid out of the way—his face had fallen and he was this close to bellowing in fear. What happened? Did he do something bad? 

“It’s OK, baby,” Zoya soothed both her boys, holding one and patting the other.

She squeezed Zaid’s cheeks between her thumb and forefinger. “But you gotta be careful, cowboy,” she told her son as she rubbed noses with him. “Keep that up and you won’t have a chhota bhai or behen to to play with.” 

A toothy grin split Zaid’s face. Did someone say play? Let’s roll!

He twirled his mom’s hair around his finger absently as he latched on for his morning feed. 

“Are you OK baby,” his mom asked and Zaid nodded, eyes wide and bright. He didn’t realize that Ammi was actually talking to Abbu. Abbu grunted something unintelligible. And as his parents talked he wondered what they would do today. Were they going to ride that open bus? Would he see the horsey again and ride the carriage? No, he didn’t want to see Elmo or The Hulk in Tai Scare, thank you very much. They scared him. He wanted to sit on the red steps and look up at the huge billboards. He couldn’t swivel his head around enough to catch the changing images and videos.

 

“No!” Asad covered his face with his hands that night. 

“But you promised!” Zoya said in an indignant stage whisper as she dangled her gift in front of him. 

Asad groaned. “When I said yes to wearing Batman underwear for you I didn’t realize they would look like … that! He wagged a finger and pointed to the skimpy briefs in black pleather. Who made these things anyways? What imagination! They were emblazoned with the bat signal and even had a zippered front—matte finish of course. 

“Please,” Zoya pleaded and pouted. And bounced. The stars and stripes bounced and jiggled too. Asad’s head rolled back as he groaned again. She had already changed into her Wonder Woman lingerie and it was making him hard but then when he saw that … that ridiculous thing that she was holding and expected him to—

Zoya batted her lashes at him and wiggled some more as he went cross-eyed with lust. “Please, Jahanpanah … for your kaneez.” 

Her husky voice steamed his blood even as that se*xy pout did him in—like she knew it would. She held the glow-in-the-dark Batman briefs and dangled them playfully from her fingertips. But he had to burst out laughing when she slowly undid the zipper … with her teeth.

“I think you’ll fill these out real nice,” she winked and stuck out a saucy tongue.

“Zoya!” he snatched them from her. “You are so bad!”

“And you love me best when I’m bad, don’t cha?” she grinned shamelessly.

He drew her close by her waistband and flicked a finger under her chin, “that’s because you’re so good when you’re bad. And you know it too!” Asad fingered the batman material and made a face. “What is this made of? Please don’t tell me it’s leather … or rubber!”

“It’s a special ishqiya fabric, Mr. Khan—it stretches in love and molds and hugs like a … glove.” His eyes widened and she giggled. She knew that he didn’t expect her to say glove especially when she swallowed suggestively. “Now stop delaying the inevitable—and scoot!”

He spanked her lightly for pushing him. 

“Ooh baby, is that the best you got?” Zoya did a half-pirouette and then with her hands on her knees stuck her butt out more. The royal blue silk panties made his mouth water. His eyes drank her in. She’d really outdone herself in getting most of the costume details right: the gold headband, the red cape. Only the high-heeled boots were black instead of the classic red. “I didn’t want to buy a new pair. My old black boots’ll have to do,” she’d sighed a few minutes earlier. “Where am I going to wear red boots?” 

“In our bedroom?” Asad had teased. He loved those spiky boots of hers. His head swam imagining her in them in public with her mini skirt.

He saw red. Sonofa—

But then he got distracted by a deepening dimple … Oh yes, he would insist that she have only those boots on when he took her tonight— 

Asad dipped his head to kiss her. “You better be packing those boots to wear in Ind—” but she pushed him away.

“Mr. Khan, I need you to focus on the right here, right now! Now go change into your Batman undies. Hurry!” 

They had to keep their voices low. Zaid was fast asleep after a long day of taking his Abbu to the petting zoo at Central Park, walking the Brooklyn Bridge and a visit to the Top of the Rock with breathtaking views of the city—Central Park to the north, Empire State Building to the south, the Hudson River in the West and the East River on the opposite side.

It was all, as she always said, M.A. 

“Zoya—” Asad tried distracting her by nibbling on her lobe. His hands were already exploring Wonder Woman’s curves, thumbs dipping under the star-spangled waistband … 

“Hey, don’t make me whip out my lasso!” she threatened as she turned and assumed her warrior pose.

Asad laughed softly. His American vacation was turning out to be quite the unexpected adventure. But this delicious sightseeing detour he hadn’t anticipated.

So far he had loved visting Zoya’s elementary and high schools. Outside the elementary school office he’d traced her name on a 6X6 ceramic tile painted by her for a school project when she was nine. He had made her pose in front of the tile wall and point to her artwork with Zaid. If he’d had his way Asad would have liked to cut out the tile and take it back home with them but then he’d end up in an American jail for vandalism.

Everyday he saw a new face of the city. Manhattan hummed with action: New Yorkers hustling away, not making eye contact with gawking tourists who would invariably ask for directions. How the hell did Zoya figure out the whole Avenue versus Street thing, the uptown and downtown speak, the east and the west? It seemed to be some kind of wicked secret that only New Yorkers knew about. Zoya had tried to explain the grid system to him—“remember, 5th Ave. is the spine of Manhattan. Everything east of it is the eastside and the numbers go down. And everything west, westside as the Avenue numbers go up. Simple!” She’d been so patient with him too. It made sense when she said, “simple!” but the instant someone said, “corner of W. 46th and 7th,” he got lost all over again. “You’ll get the hang of it. A few more days and you’ll be a pro,” Zoya patted his cheek each time he made faces in confusion. 

And the city plugged away, intimately familiar to the natives, beguiling to visitors who would forget the dizzying street and avenue numbers but remember its steel, and glass, and concrete.

And grit.

 

Of course Ayaan fell in love with New York, hard, just like his nephew. He was still rallying everyone for a club night but Bhai hadn’t yet caved in to his charm. Stuff it, he knew just how to get Bhaijaan around—at that he was a pro. But by now one thing was very clear: if Humaira and Mona Darling were opposed to Ayaan’s shenanigans then he would never be able to persuade him—“Bhaijaan ki wafadar chamchiyan,” he taunted them. But with them on his side, it would be a piece of cake. Ayaan ran a co*cky hand through his hair. Easy as pie. And of course he’d swiftly lapped up all Americanisms by now.

If only they could stay here a bit longer … this place was freaking awesome! He’d gone a little crazy at the M&M store seeing all that candy, in all possible colors, stacked three stories high. Humaira had to drag him away by pinching his arm. 

“Gotta watch those architectural teeth, Raaburt,” Zoya had teased him. “With that much candy, saari foundation bigad jayegi!”

Ppffft! Shut up, Mona. 

R2D2 and BB 8 made out of candy? Come on! Definitely awesome. He freaking loved it! An adventure waiting at every corner or block. Like on one street they had to weave through an army of film crew trucks. Zoya and Ayaan had sidled up to man with a walkie-talkie. “Are they filming something here?” she asked. 

“A scene for the show, ‘Blacklist.’ New season.”

“Cool!” Ayaan exclaimed. “We’ll check out season 1 as soon as we get home,” He nodded at Humaira who laughed at her husband’s rabid excitement. Ayaan had become a wafadar binge-watching junkie just like his Mona Darling Bhabhi.   

At another street and they’d encountered a long line snaking around a building: The Ed Sullivan Theatre with people lining up to see “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” At Pier 84 they found their way blocked with dozens of NYPD cars, fire trucks and ambulances. This time Zoya and Humaira hurried to ask someone what had happened. “Some kayakers capsized. A rescue operation.” 

Late at night people spilled out of the theaters to throng Times Square. The street performers revved up the crowds. The giant billboards lit up the night with a billion-watt shimmer.

The city kept going and going and going. It may well have been a never-ending broadway show come to life.

It was crazy. It was exhilarating.

 

But Asad's love affair with New York came with an asterisk. Earlier in the day he had grinned broadly when Zoya exclaimed, arms outstretched, from Rockefeller Center’s rooftop, “Isn’t this city amazing? I love New York! Isn’t it the best city in the whole wide world?” 

Yes it was, he nodded in agreement as he tucked a flyaway hair behind her ear. Her animation had been contagious.

 

But then he’d gone dead silent as they rode the elevator down and all the way home. 

“Asad?” she asked when they were finally in their room. Zoya was worried about him. Why was he brooding? She’d been busy with a fussy Zaid initially but had gradually alerted to Asad’s darkening mood. She couldn’t ask him about what was bothering him earlier—they’d been stuck in traffic forever with the others. But now she had to know. 

He gazed out of the window arms crossed, brow furrowed.

She slipped her arms around his waist and leaned her face against his rigid back. 

“Everything okay?” she asked again. “Are you mad at me?”

Asad sighed and let his arms fall by his side. She slid her hands up his chest to hug him closer. Jeeju had also noted Asad’s sudden stillness. What happened? Was it some crisis at work? Or was it something else? “You’re scaring me by going all quiet. Did I do something?”

His hands came up to cover hers. Asad lifted her hand to press his lips against her palm and exhaled. “No it’s not you. You didn’t do anything, I did.” 

“Asad, stop scaring me. What have you done? It can’t be anything bad.” 

“It is bad.” He turned to pull her into his arms. 

“I took you so far away from a home you love … friends, family.” He waved an arm in defeat. “This—New York—the best city in the whole wide world.” 

Hysterical laughter bubbled up through intense relief. Going up on her toes Zoya latched her arms behind his neck. “Allah miyan, what’s wrong with you, Mr. Khan,” she murmured as she brushed noses with him. “Why would you scare a girl like this for such a silly thing? Look who’s being incredibly foolish now!” He sounded like he was actually jealous of New York!

Aw, Mr. Khan.

Asad frowned. “I’m dead serious. I feel terrible that you’ll have to leave all this behind. Again. I see how much this place means to you. I never realized till now how much you’ve given up … for me.” 

He’d seen the brimming pride and boundless energy as she’d shown him around, dragged him to some of her favorite places, forced him to sample food truck cuisine from all around the world—falafel and crepes, shwarma and tacos, bagels and Thai rolled ice cream … he’d heard her brag about the sweet water from the Adirondacks that made the New York bagels and New York pizzas taste the best in the world … And Ya Allah, the coffee was to die for.

This city was alive and throbbing. The city was all her. It beat in sync with her joy, her vibrancy. Why would she like any place else?

 “I wish we had more time so that I could show you …” he’d heard her grouse a hundred times.

Just this morning she’d tried to recreate a photo from her past that graced the mantle in Jeeju and Aapi’s home—Aapi holding Zoya as a toddler in her arms with the towers of Brooklyn Bridge rising behind them. Today she had posed with Zaid in her arms in the same spot as she made Asad match the exact details of a picture from nearly twenty years ago. “Won’t it be so cool when Zaid comes here years later with his own kid and took the same picture?” 

All his earlier fears and insecurities came rattling back when he heard her declare from the top of the world, “isn’t it the best city in the whole wide world?” Was this the real reason he’d hesitated so often in the past each time she mentioned coming to the US? Did he fear that once she went back she’d never look back? That she’d always compare Bhopal to New York and find it lacking? What city could ever compare to New York? 

“You crazy, silly man,” Zoya pressed herself closer to him. “I gave up nothing and I gained the whole world two times over! It’s not as if by marrying you I’m banned from loving and coming to New York. It’s not a zero-sum game—”

“But I see how much you must miss this—”

“I do miss it but it doesn’t make me sad or depressed. Each time I miss this a little doesn’t mean I don’t cherish what I have.” She took his face in her hands. “Asad, look at me. I love what I have with you! I love you, our home, Zaid and Ammi, Abbu, Dobby, Aunty, Humaira. Everyone. Everything! Oh my god, Asad nothing else matters, don’t you see? I have you. Aap par, humari chhoti si, pyaari si zindagi pe hazaar New York qurbaan!”

Asad smiled at that. Finally! “But I don’t want it to be a qurbaani for you!” he tried one last time to make her understand how terrible he felt for wrenching her away from her home.

It was only after they’d declared their love for one another that he’d found out about her original plans when she’d first come to India. It had taken months for her to convince Aapi to let her come to India to search for her father. She’d taken a gap year after graduation even as all her friends had gone on to join new jobs. “I’ll always keep wondering, Aapi. Let me have this, please! I’ll never ask you for anything else.” Aapi had only agreed once Zoya had promised that she would live in India till her visa expired in five months and then return to the US. She could start applying for grad school soon after, or join work—but the quest had to be put to rest. 

“Please Asad, it’s no qurbaani! If I had to do it over I wouldn’t change a single thing about my life! And hey, New York is a state of mind,” she countered, and giggled when Asad rolled his eyes. 

“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.” 

“Of course! But I’m also saying it because I seriously mean it too! Jeez.” 

Asad huffed. He was still not fully convinced that she was right and he wasn’t. 

“Noo Yaa!” Zaid twittered from where he was playing on the floor with his mega blocks. It was way past his bedtime but he was wide awake. 

“See, even he loves New York!” Asad thundered. The boy said those words at least fifty times a day.

Zoya grabbed his hand and dragged him to sit on the floor next to Zaid. Asad sagged back against the bed and Zoya sat down between his legs. His arms came around her to pull her closer. Zaid noticed this and abandoned his blocks to trundle over. He raised his arms to be included in the family cuddle and Zoya rocked him against her. 

He cooed. 

“Abbu is feeling sad,” Zoya told Zaid. “Should we tell him a story?” 

“Owee tai!” Zaid clapped as he twisted to look up at his dad. He loved story time!

Asad smiled at his son’s growing vocabulary which was still mixed in with a hefty dose of lisping and humming. And of course, drooling. 

“Once upon a time there was a young girl,” Zoya began.

Zaid stilled. He understood the cues. His eyes rounded. A girl? Was this going to be the Jhassi kRani story? Good!

“She was happy enough in a city of towers and spires but it was as if half of her was missing. This girl wanted to go on a great adventure but her parents wouldn’t let her go. ‘It’s too dangerous,’ they told her. ‘Don’t go,’ they said.” 

Asad listened too, intrigued in spite of himself. He had picked up on the cues too—the story was for him just as much as it was for Zaid. One hand curled around Zoya’s waist and the other stroked his son’s head. 

Zoya was on a roll.

“ ‘No!’ she fought with them and begged and pleaded. ‘I have to find my destiny,’ she told them. ‘I have to know who I am, where I come from. And I know that what I seek lies far beyond these skyscr*apers and subways, museums and theaters. Far beyond Times Square and Central Park. To the East I must go.’ Little did she know that she would find a father. A husband. And a son.” Zoya traced Zaid’s face with a finger. 

“ ‘How will you protect yourself?’ her parents asked. ‘You’ll be all alone.’ ” 

“ ‘I have my pepper spray and iPad!’ and the girl held out an arm like the Statue of Liberty’s torch with the iPad clutched close to her other side.” Everyone knew how much Zaid loved Statue of Liberty. He would raise his arm each time he heard her name mentioned. 

Asad felt torn. The land in the East and the destiny she talked of hadn’t treated her well at the beginning. It had given her scars both seen and unseen.

But this bedtime story though … its charms wormed and wound their way into his shadowed heart. While Asad bit his lip to keep himself from laughing out loud Zaid looked at his mom intently. His thumb strayed toward his mouth. He frowned when she tugged it away.

Zoya continued her storytelling. She knew she had not one but two avid listeners. And she was only just getting to the good parts. Hang on, baby. “She traveled over seas and mountains. Over great lakes and mighty forts. Till she finally came to a beautiful lake city where trolls and monsters chased her. They hunted her down and locked her up.” 

Asad’s arms tightened around her. All true. This girl had encountered much violence and terror away from her beloved city … 

Damn. So many times she had coming close to dying.

So many times he had come close to losing her … 

Asad buried his face in her hair. No, thank god that was all behind them. 


They had beat the odds and made it back to each other.

 


Allah had opened up a new world to them and the scars that remained were testimony of their resilience. "Hum pe meherbaan do jahan," she loved to sing.


No more tears … only thanks. 

He nuzzled her neck after pushing her hair to one side. He didn’t know whether he liked where this story was going. It churned up too much darkness. And when exactly or how would he be making an entrance in this saga? At this point in her story wasn’t she was mixing up the two Akram incidents? 

It was as if she read his mind. He heard the smile in her voice.

“She fought hard but she was losing. Her energy was fading. There was no Zaid Miyan or Dobby Miya-oon to help her.”

 

Asad’s eyes clamped shut in remembered shame when she spoke of the fading energy. They had drugged her—why had he been so such a stick-in-the-mud in those days? Tehzeeb-obsessed and blind …

Zoya squeezed and patted his hand as if to say, wait for it, the good parts are coming. We’re fine. Aal iz well. 

Zaid’s eyes shone. He liked being in a story but why wasn’t he around to help this girl? Where was he? What happened to that girl? Someone help her! 

“Then a fearless fighter leaped up and scissor-kicked the bad guys away. Like this!” 

 

Zoya grabbed his little legs and helped Zaid mimic his father’s kicks. Zaid gurgled some dhisoom-like sounds. They both cheered and Asad laughed. It became a little easier to breathe.

“ ‘Are you okay?’ the warrior asked the girl after he beat up the bad guys.” 

Asad smirked. There was a lot missing from this mixed-up story but some details were spot on.

He couldn’t resist adding to her narration. “ ‘Allah miyan, what’s wrong with you! I can fight my own fights,’ this young woman replied. ‘I can take care of myself. I’m a strong girl,’ ” Asad butted in with his own version of the story.

Thank god he didn’t brand her a princess in his story or he’d have gotten a sharp elbow in his ribs.

It was Zoya’s turn to laugh at her husband’s returning humor. 

“ ‘May be you should go back to New York,’ the man told her.” Zoya continued the double-edged chronicle: as a lullaby for her son, and message wrapped in repartee for his father.

“ ‘May be this is not the right place for you,’ he added.”

A soft gasp escaped Asad’s lips. His hand at her waist moved to hold hers tight. He took up the narrative now, voice dropping to a husky murmur.

Asad: “ ‘Oh really? Who are you to tell me where to go or stay?’ the girl sassed at the man. ‘I’ll choose what I do because I’m here on a secret mission!’ ”

Zoya giggled. A secret mission? Wait, was he making fun of her mistaking him for a secret agent? Jahanpanah Bond, you better not! 

 

It was Zoya’s turn to tease him for his Jahanpanah episodes.

Zoya: “ ‘Girls shouldn’t go on secret missions,’ the man breathed fire like a big Akdu dragon!” 

This was fun. She loved how naturally they were role-playing each others’ angry words from their first few meetings. No, scratch that. Their first few collisions. 

Asad: “Girls can do whatever they want to do without any one telling them what to do,’ she yelled.” 

Zoya elbowed him. She did NOT yell, thank you very much.

Asad chuckled. He remembered thinking differently on their second meeting as he'd snarked about her screeching.

Zoya: “ ‘New York has made you strong but badtameez,’ the Akdu dragon dared to say.”

Asad: “ ‘You betcha!’ the ziddi girl said, nose high in the air.”

“Please, I do NOT talk like that!” Zoya protested through giggles.

Zaid didn’t understand why his parents were grinning and why Ammi was slapping at Abbu’s chest. But he was getting drowsy and this story was not as interesting as his parents thought it was. He watched their eyes snag and hands still. They leaned into one another. This was all too familiar.

“India makes me strong too, you know,” Ammi whispered. “And incandescently happy.” 

Abbu stroked her cheek. “How?” he asked.

“India gave me you. And Zaid.” 

They both looked down at their son. But he’d fallen asleep by then. Asad played with her fingers. “I was arrogant to not consider that you might have regrets about settling down in India.”

She shifted sideways with Zaid still clutched in her arms. “No, you’re a sweetheart for feeling all this guilt. But it’s unnecessary. Give it up, Mr. Khan, I’m not going to let you paint yourself as the bad guy—the super Akdu husband who forced his wife into exile. You’re not that guy. And I’m not that girl. Besides, if you keep this up I’m going to think that you don’t think I’m capable of making my own decisions and choices!” 

“You’re sure you made the right choice?”

“How can you even ask me that!” 

“Because I don’t want to be the reason for tying you down or holding you back. You studied and worked here, were independent. You’re brilliant! God knows what you might have gone on to do, how high you might risen in the corporate world of technology or finance—”

“Asad! And finance? Ugh. I wouldn’t last a day there!”

Taking a slumbering Zaid in his arms Asad rose to deposit him in his pillowed nest on the bed. God knows why he felt weighed down by these silvery cobwebs of doubt and what ifs. In a more playful mood Zoya would have teased him: “you’re PMSing again Mr. Khan!” 

But Zoya knew this weird thing sizzling within him. It was indescribable but still cast a concrete shadow on his heart. She didn’t want to make fun of him; she wanted to reassure him. Sometimes he needed this assurance like he needed oxygen. Sometimes fear of losing a good thing or being undeserving of fortune seemed to claw him hollow. Even Ammi had told her about this early on. “He’s scared that everything good might be ripped away from him. And then he begins to doubt himself, ask if he’s good or deserving enough.” 

Pushing him to sit and lean back against the headboard Zoya climbed into his lap. Asad’s arms came around her. She turned out the bedside lamp and burrowed into the familiar nooks and crannies of his warmth. Zoya dragged his mouth down to hers for a deep kiss. Streetlight splashed in from the window painting dark gold swatches on the floor and walls. Shadows elongated and snuggled. She kissed his palm before placing it on her heart. 

“I love, love, absolutely love that you can even think this way. Jahanpanah, you sure have come a long way and I’m so proud of you. Every girl should have such a husband and champion!”

He stirred, embarrassed. Asad tried pulling his hand away.

“But seriously though, I wish you wouldn’t think like that.” Her voice got all papery and quavery.  “You know that first time in the Thai restaurant when you said I love you Zoya? I thought to myself: I’m finally home. This is where I belong. With you. There was no New York then, no nothing else. Just you. And us.” 

 

Just us. And an unknown ache that only he could fill. The raging emotions of that fateful day flashed through her—from morning to evening that day had dragged but the looming get-together at the restaurant had come too soon and, Bam! it had slammed her flat in the chest. How many times has she cried that day! She'd fought with him and yelled at him and with a final, "you're not worth it," she'd run out of the house crying. How hard it had been to step out of her room that day to face a whole evening of chitchat about engagements, nikaahs and waleemas. But then by night that day turned into the best day of her life. Thank you, Allah Miyan! Zoya hugged him to her.

Asad dropped a kiss on her head but still remained unconvinced. His continued silence craved comfort. So she pulled out her trump card. She saved it for special times. And these were desperate times. Asad hadn’t decended the black hole in a long time.

“Remember I told you long ago about the vow I’d made to myself when I came to India? ‘Jo chahat hai, usko paane ki taqat dena. Jo kismat hai, usse qubool karne ki himmat dena.’ It was more like a pact with God, I guess. But I’m so blessed that Allah made you my chahat and kismat. Don’t you see how right this is? How right we are?”

“Of course I do. But—”

“Shh,” she pressed a finger to his lips. Instinctively he kissed it. “Two things, Mr. Khan: one, what corporate high-flying job? I would never have joined the corporate world. Seriously, can you see me being a part of that universe? A non-profit, may be. A start-up, definitely! But I see myself more as a freelancer who would pick and choose projects based on my specs. And two, do you think I’m not doing anything worthwhile or productive right now? That I’m wasting my potential?" 

“No way! I didn’t mean that at all. You’re doing great stuff, on your terms, and making a huge difference … I’m so proud of all your projects and dreams. I love that you hold yourself and me to a high standard.” 

“Exactly,” she smiled smugly. She was reeling him back in from the abyss. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you—sure, had I stayed on in New York I would have been doing some cool stuff. Who knows! But I chose to settle in India the day I chose to say qubool hai to you. Do you think I could have survived knowing about Abbu and Tanveer conning him without you? Don't forget, you've been my rock through it all. My North Star!” 

Asad breathed in her scent. The bands of skepticism were loosening their hold on him. He loved it when she tried to reason with him as he wrangled with ocassional uncertainties—Professor Zoya mode, he called it afterwards. On some days she was philosopher Zoya too. “Baba Zoya ka gyaan-pedia,” Ayaan would roll his eyes and tease. But these were short bursts of reflection on her part. Most days she was the same crazyass Zoya who had disrupted his life by being the brash and careless New Yorker who forever interrupted his stony isolation.

“Jo chahat hai, usko paane ki taqat dena. Jo kismat hai, usse qubool karne ki himmat, hmm?” Asad repeated softly in her ear. 

“Exactly. And by the way, I said settle IN India—that doesn’t mean that I ‘settled’ or compromised any of my life choices!” She waved mad air quotes for added emphasis. “Got it?” 

“Got it.” 

 

“Aal iz well?” 

Asad grinned. “Aal iz well.”

 

“Do you know how much I love you?” he asked after a few minutes of reflective silence. 

“No, I’m sorry I don’t. How ‘bout you show me how much, Mr. Khan?” 

He did. And a long and satisfying show it was because hadn’t she worked really hard to steer him back to the light? She'd lifted him up once again like she had on their Mehendi night—another night when he hadn't felt worthy of her love. The night when she'd returned his ring ... When he had feared that she could never love him because he may be the son of her mother's murderer.

"Asad, just hold me, please," she'd said that night and made everything right again.

"You make those nightmares go away and make me feel beautiful despite my scar," she'd soothed away his fears then too.

"Can't you see, we're even!" she'd cried with full conviction in their made-for-each-otherness.

Yes, we're even. We're right for each other.

"Because you are here, in my arms, crying for me and loving me. Why would I turn away from the best thing that happened to me?" 

Amen.

 

It was probably 4 in the morning when Asad tapped her shoulder and gently shook her awake. 

“Hunh?” Zoya rubbed sleep from her eyes. What was with him? If he wanted a quickie he’d never bothered to ask permission before. Ususally he just flipped her over and entered without so much as an if I may, or by your leave.

Allah miyan, what’s wro— 

“By the way, if I’m your chahat and kismat you’re my taqat and himmat, got it?” He risked telling her this even though he was about 78% sure that she would call him Tubelight Ahmed Khan for this belated epiphany.

Mission accomplished Asad turned his back on her to resettle into a morning nap.

Zoya blinked. Twice. “Gee, it’s so nice to know that Jahanpanah. After all my hard work I stayed up the whole night worried that you would never realize that!” 

A shocked laugh burbled up through his diaphragm. Trust her to have a comeback even half-asleep. He fell silent though when he felt her finger trace words on his bare back.

His eyes widened and erection mounted the next instant.

“F-u-c-k m-e,” she scrawled across his skin and added three violent exclamation points stabbing him with a French-tipped nail. 

His flip and her being pinned on her back was just as violent. And instantaneous. 

“With pleasure, babe,” he breathed in her ear as he entered her. “And here I thought you’d never ask for a demo of my taqat and himmat!” 

She was too far gone for a smartass comeback. His hands … his mouth made her mute as her nerves danced and screamed. Zoya may have lost this round pinned flat on her New Yorker back, but damn she’d missed his weight on her all those days. Him, sliding hot and hard between her legs as he made her insides clench and toes curl. Him, just fire-starting a whisker burn on her neck and cheek and setting her aflame. A sleeping bag on a New York floor or a plush and wide bed in Bhopal—what the hell did any of that matter?

What mattered was only this.

This.

Oh yeah baby, right there. Aanh—

This incendiary rhythm and this grindin—

Yes

 

Asad had new worries the next day. But these were a lot more legitimate. He wanted to pace the floor but held himself rigid and away from Zoya and Zaid.

Dr. Rodriguez smiled at him. “He’ll be fine,” she said. 

They didn’t want Asad to be anywhere near when they tried to give Zaid a dollop of organic peanut butter for his allergy test. In fact Zoya had wanted him to stay outside but he’d bulldozed over that suggestion. Asad had been so sure of himself when they’d discussed this test a few weeks ago. But now he felt cold sweat coat his back. Zoya was nearly in tears and he felt helpless for not being able to hold them. Each feared the worst knowing they wouldn’t be able to see Zaid’s tiny body seize up if he got an attack. She still had nightmares about how Asad's body had thrashed as he choked—

Thank god Zaid didn’t sense their anxiety! He lapped up the thick paste as his tongue dislodged this new taste from the roof of his mouth.

His arms flapped.

“Mmmm naaa yaaam,” he babbled. There was a colorful play set on the floor. Why wasn’t Ammi letting him reach it? Wait, why was she not giving him more of this interesting treat? And why was everyone watching him like that?

He thrashed his legs and tired to reach out to his Abbu. But Abbu wouldn’t come closer to hold him. Abbu looked like he wanted to smash something and Ammi’s fingers were digging into his sides. Zaid wailed in frustration.

Lemme down! 

“Zoya, put him down on the floor,” Dr. Rodriguez said gently. She sat on the floor next to the toys herself. Zaid’s eyes followed her. 

“Come here, peanut,” she cooed. 

Zaid squirmed more. Zoya released him after a quick kiss to his curls and he crawled over to lay his hands on the big yellow dump truck that was begging to be test-driven. Up on his knees he wheeled it around making car sounds.

“This is good,” the doctor said looking up at both of them. “So far, he’s fine. No difficulty in breathing. His color’s good and I don’t see anything to be alarmed about. We’ll give it a little more time and then do some blood work after this to be absolutely sure. Keep a close eye on him the rest of the day and call me if you notice anything irregular.”

Asad hadn’t realized that he’d been holding his breath. It whooshed out just as Zoya started to cry softly. He leaped to sit by her side.

“Shh,” he slid his fingers through hers. “He did it! I told you he’s a tiger!” 

“I was so scared,” she sobbed. 

“Me too.” Together they watched Zaid playing with Dr. Rodriguez. They watched him clap and squeal as she pressed on a toy keyboard and it made the sound of a fire engine. He pressed down on other buttons. A car honked and then a train whistled. Zaid whooped. 

They observed him for another fifteen minutes. After the other tests were completed Dr. Rodriguez sat them down as Zaid continued to play on the floor. 

“This is promising. I’ll call you as soon as I get the blood report but I don’t anticipate anything alarming. I know you’re relieved. Congratulations, there’s nothing to worry about. Some kids beat the gene and I guess Zaid is one of those outliers. Yay, right Mr. Zaid Ahmed Khan?” She turned to the little tyke who eagerly high-fived her. He had never been called such a long name and that too in an American accent. And he didn’t know that he was one of her youngest graduates who didn’t get to be called peanut anymore. Yay, indeed.

She gave them some tips as Zoya and Asad beamed in relieved delight. She tried to answer all thousand of Asad’s worried questions. No, there was no harm in trying to administer this test for an infant under the age of one. The sooner kids were exposed to allergens the better their immune systems fought them. And no, she laughed, they didn’t need to redo the test all over again tomorrow. “It’s pretty conclusive. No do-overs needed.” 

“But should we carry an EpiPen, just in case …?” Zoya ventured. 

“Sure, there’s no harm in that. But do educate yourself on the correct symptoms and use. I don’t want you pumpimg him full of Epinephrine just because he showed some discomfort or difficulty in breathing.” She handed out a glossy leaflet. 

They nodded and expressed their heartfelt gratitude. Zoya hugged the doctor and insisted that she think of coming to India for her next vacation. Asad seconded that. Just as they were packing up to leave her office Dr. Rodriguez detained them. 

“Mr. Khan, Zoya told me about your symptoms and last attack. Looks like you have a high sensitivity to peanuts. While I advise Zoya to keep exposing Zaid to all kinds of nuts regularly, you will have to be especially careful of what you come in contact with. People who are highly allergic to nuts can have fatal reactions if they aren’t injected with an EpiPen immediately.”

She didn’t want to alarm them by discussing a recent case in Canada where a girl died because her new boyfriend didn’t know about her allergies when he kissed her after consuming a peanut-based snack. But looking at Zoya’s pinched face she knew that Zoya probably had heard of this case. 

Asad nodded meanwhile as he strapped Zaid into his stroller. He knew all this already. Why was she—?

The doctor smiled. “I know you must be thinking why I’m telling you something you already know. First, to caution you—don’t come too close to Zaid when he’s ingested peanuts. Always keep your auto-injector close just in case. And no, Zoya, you shouldn’t ban peanuts for Zaid—he needs the exposure to build a healthy immune system. Just make sure that you’ve brushed his teeth and washed his hands thoroughly before his father holds or kisses him. But more importantly, I brought this up because there’ve been some medical breakthroughs. These days you can wear a patch that reduces your risk of an anaphylactic reaction when you come in contact with nuts. You should talk to your doctor and look into this. If you want I can give you some names and send you the research. Think about it. It could be life-saving.”

Zoya sagged back with final relief.

She’d walk to the ends of the earth if somehow she could protect both her guys from evil peanuts. Even if Asad resisted or dithered she’d look into these anti-allergic patches and make him wear one each time Zaid experimented with anything peanut-related. Hell, she would even buy stock in the company that made this miracle product. Because yes, she had read that news story about the Canadian couple. It was after reading that story that she’d thanked her instincts which had made her impose a self-ban on peanuts. Imagine if kissing someone you loved could kill them! No way would she let that happen on her watch.

She huffed at Asad who had read her mind and was rolling his eyes. He could already see the gears in her head grinding. He could just see himself now—knowing her paranoia about his allergies she would probably cover him head to toe in these patches. Asad snorted.

Oh she heard that all right.

They glared at each other.

Fists to her hips Zoya frowned at him. Her pout got moodier. 

No Mr. Khan, don’t! You will wear that patch even if I have to handcuff you and that will be the end of it. Bas! 

 

Dr. Rodriguez looked a bit alarmed at these drawn battle lines. What just happened? They were fine a minute ago. 

But what did she know? Only Dilshad could figure this familiar scene out. She was an old interpreter and referee of her son and daughter-in-law’s fight club. 

And only Dilshad could smile serenely at this scene and raise her hands in prayer to give thanks. 





Song in Title:

Aaja Nach Le (2007): "O Re Piya"







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