It was a wonderful day. It started off slowly with the winter’s characteristic calm and lit up beautifully when the sun decided to unleash its rays piercing the clouds, softly brightening the west wall of our bedroom. We didn’t get up until the sunrays gradually reached our bed and I saw my wife’s eyes ablaze with brown fires; her lips curved into a smile which had captured my heart long time ago. I once asked her whether she was smiling or not when saying qubool hai and she said it was a very emotional moment that her memory failed to recall the facial expressions but she is sure her eyes were wet and a tear drop had fallen on the nikahnama she had signed, smudging the paper with ink, had I noticed the smudge, she asked me. I had noticed it but I thought it was sweat from the witness’s brow. She brought tea in two large mugs with some biscuits.
‘My friend Mehreen is getting married next week, she has invited us’
‘But Mehreen is already married’
‘Not that Mehreen, the other Mehreen, Mehreen Syed’
‘So many of your friends are named Mehreen, why is it so?’
‘Only three are alive, we must go and if you have any work at office I tell you now to finish before Friday, unless you want to sleep with the guard when you return’
‘He does have an extra bed’
The sunlight made squares on the wall, the illumined dust particles danced like mindless moths. Sipping tea, she said:
‘Lets go to the beach today, it has been so long’
Before our marriage whenever we met on Sundays she used to curse the busy schedule of her job and declare with authority of an old philosopher that Sundays are as rare as good people. I would tell her that goodness lies in the observer’s heart and nobody is ever right or wrong. If while walking at the footpath I accidentally hit somebody with my shoulder and then he beats me up, I should, if knowing that he has just been unfairly fired by his boss, refrain from retaliation, knowing that his act of aggression was committed by an emotion which was truly justified by the circumstances he had been through. She told me that I have a woman’s heart and it would not be wrong if I am called a coward. Her tone was so benign I could not be sad at her declaration. She is a hard woman to be with when she is angry. Once she called me from the kitchen to help her with something while I was just opening the toilet door with a collection of short stories under my arm and grumbling insides. I pretended to not listen and went in to relieve. I heard her calling me again and I told her where I was. Few moments later she called me again, I was now down the third page of a story and it was very engaging. Suddenly the door was punched from outside with powerful fists and I heard curses. I came out within seconds and found her sitting on the sofa fuming with wrath. I tried to smile not knowing that she was serious and she burst on me with curses I didn’t know she was aware of. She went to the kitchen and threw a glass at me which I caught, remembering my days as a wicket-keeper in the college cricket team. I tried to calm her down and ran towards her to take her in my arms and she just let herself free and sat down in my lap, crying. She took my hands and kissed them and kept saying she was sorry till I put my finger on her lips and tightened my grip. She let out a stream of tears. After she calmed down I tried to ask her what was the matter but she said she had a terrible headache and she wanted sleep. I helped her to bed and after a few minutes she started talking to herself. I heard her saying: ‘why don’t you listen to me, all you care about is dolls, come play with me!’
Five years ago I came back from China after completing a research course in pharmacy at Tsinghua University on a scholarship. It was a great experience living among the Chinese except a single incidence. I accidently ate pork in a restaurant when a waitress mistakenly brought me the wrong dish. I gave her and the restaurant management a piece of my mind, they were very apologetic. I cursed myself for not paying attention and asked a religious scholar what to do. Other than that, the Chinese days would stand out in my memory as a favourite child. It was not long before that I landed a handsomely paid job at a multinational pharmaceutical company. After attending preliminary trainings at various European cities, I finally took up my job. An year later I decided to put to action my long delayed plan of meeting my old college teachers. One Monday in the winter of 2010, I took the long journey to the Air Force base near Maripur. As I drove, I remembered the bus journey from Hasan Square to Maripur we used to take everyday beginning at six in the morning. It was nostalgic; sad and happy moments hidden in the familiar places on the way crept out as I went along dusty broken roads like genies from lamps. When I reached Sher Shah, I tried to find the spot where our bus was robbed. Who would want to rob a school bus I had wondered , taking a risk for the monetary amounts as little as children’s pocket- moneys. People can do anything. My cousin who lives near a village in Nawabshah told me how his professor was robbed. The poor guy was going from the city to the village on foot one afternoon when four armed bandits on two motor-cycles surrounded him and putting a gun on his temple forced him to give them everything he had on him. He complied. And that, the gentlemen thought, was not enough; they also forced him to strip, leaving him in his undergarments. He stood there and unable to think what to do, lied down in the middle of the road. I reached Gulbhai which is known for a legend of seven fishermen who were killed by a fish of some sort and then buried here. Every morning on my way to school I pictured the scene when the fishermen were killed, wondering if they were aboard the Pequod with Captain Ahab looking for an albino whale. I took a right turn straight to the entrance of the Air Base.
After I met all my teachers who had not retired, reminiscing about the old silly mistakes and rebukes and joking about the days long gone by, a young woman with long black hair , in a blue dress and green gown walked into the staff room. She seemed irritated but looking at a stranger amid her usual colleagues put on a reluctant smile. She had a fair skin, small lips and slightly bigger nose. Mrs Nuzhat introduced her as the new head of the biology department and we greeted each. All the teachers had to go take their scheduled classes so Mrs. Nuzhat asked the young woman to accompany me in the tour of the college. We walked in the corridors, then in the library, the cafeteria and the laboratories. Students looked at us from the classrooms. I noted in the reflection from one of the glass doors that my tie was as blue as the lady’s dress. After visiting the entire premises of the college we sat down on a bench under a poplar tree. Our feet crunched the dead leaves on the stone. In college days, we smoked behind this great old tree. Once our Islamic Studies teacher called me in front of the class, and bringing his nose very close to my mouth tried to find out if I had smoked. Mint candies had saved me. We talked about the college, the students, global epidemics, universities, politics and literature, she was well read and spoke about everything with a certain authority. I thanked her and extended my hand which, after hesitating a little, she shook and that departing hand shake turned into an amorous game of hands after many conversations, doubts, approvals, sorrows, promises, efforts and one final nod by her father who objected to my blood being not of Sindhi descent.
All my relationships had either ended before I went to China or were never reborn when I came back. We were married. Days passed in unimaginable bliss. We went to a tourist location every year. We bought a big apartment and she ordered exquisite furniture for all rooms. We invited her parents to live with us for a while. I met many of her relatives and she has plenty of them. She told me many of her uncles and aunts have a large number of children. She is a remarkable cook and made delicious traditional dishes. We were as happy as two people can be. But the calm sea was disturbed. And the cause was as accidental as the tsunami. And as they say the veterans of the war, though come out alive are as dead as their comrades who couldn’t make it.
She was born in her mother’s house in Shahdadkot. It had been a cloudy day and rain was expected. As the raindrops fell over the town, her mother started having contractions, and every time the thunder roared her mother cried with pain. No doctor could be found at the late hour. The only nurse in the hospital was coincidentally engaged with a labouring woman in her mother’s neighbouring house. As soon as the woman delivered a girl, the nurse ran towards her mother’s home, gave instructions to the helpers to bring medicine. And so another girl was born. Sweets were distributed in the neighbourhood by both families. And quite naturally my wife and Mehreen grew up to be best friends. They went to the same school and later to the same university. They went together on the tour up North. She once told me she had agreed to be my wife because Mehreen encouraged it. And quite naturally, my wife was aggrieved when Mehreen died.
It is said that the feeling of pain is generic, so is pleasure, hunger and thirst but the grief and sorrow, residing in the arena of spirit have particular sensations and Time with help of science heals the bodily wounds but fractures in the spirit are immune to it. The spirit lends to its parasites some of its immortality. Perhaps Time would have dealt with it if Mehreen had died of natural causes or in a plane crash. As far as I could judge it was an act of self-annihilation by her friend which left on my wife’s soul a wound only God can cure. The symptoms appeared slowly. Initially she acted strangely when I was not with her then gradually she revealed her condition in my presence. I did not know it was due to her friend’s suicide. She dealt with the situation very strongly and kept her balance at all times after the death. She was despondent, yes but she was herself, merry and lively. At times she spoke of her friend normally, like the day we went to the beach. At gloomier times, she looked like a dead flower and spoke like a sobbing ghost. ‘She tried to tell me, she wanted to say something, otherwise why would she call me right before her act?’ , she tells me now and then. Mehreen had called her one night and they talked and joked for an hour. The next morning the news reached us that the calamity had happened. She was very intrigued about the phone call and always tried to understand what Mehreen wanted to say. Did she only want to say goodbye? The motives of her suicide were not known. Nobody could answer what worm was creeping in Mehreen’s mind. When she went to see her friend for the last time, they did not let my wife see her body, they had not even let her mother see Mehreen’s swollen face. It was said that many bottles of liquid pesticides were found with her body.
I would not have spoken to my cousin’s father, a renowned psychiatrist, if I had not been shocked at looking and hearing my wife speak one evening. As I put my finger on the bell, the door was opened in earnest. I found her standing in the entrance with a lipstick in her hand. She had cut her waist-long hair which now barely reached her neck. I followed her to the bedroom and saw mass of black hair thrown in a corner looking like an expensive wig. When I asked her what had happened hugging and kissing her all the while, she said, ‘ We decided to cut our hair short for the college party this Saturday.’ She put lipstick on her small lips as I stared at her beautiful profile. Pigeons cooed outside the window, fluttered their wings joining their beaks in affection saying words of love and longing as mystical to my ears as the cycle of days and nights, lives and deaths.
The psychiatrist did not tell me anything I didn’t already know.
This went on for months. Then gradually her condition improved. She herself realized that something was wrong with her and together we tried to make life better. When not in her condition, she was sane as I was. The conditions lasted sometimes for minutes and sometimes for hours. But as the seasons changed, she became as she used to be and sometimes I forgot she had dead friend named Mehreen.
It has been six months since we went to the beach. We stepped in the car at 4 in the evening. All the way she didn’t stop talking. Looking at her now and then at a traffic signal, I saw in her face radiance of the morning sun. At the beach we walked on the shore, hand in hand. Far away in the sky, she pointed to hundreds of migrating birds, travelling to a new world with many hopes in their fluttering hearts. We passed a man sitting on a chair reading the Quran in a melodious voice. Her dupatta flew from her neck as I caught it. We turned back finding our footsteps among thousand others. We tried to tell ourselves the extent of our love and in the midst of our stroll, the air was filled with God’s name. The setting sun seemed to extol the God’s might, the maghrib azaan was heard everywhere. We sat down to listen. When it ended, her eyes were full of tears, I saw in them the hiding sun. ‘Mehreen had never been to a beach, she wanted to look at the sun set and then rise from the sea; she thought the sea is made of women’s tears!’, saying this she wept.
The man reading the Quran was not there anymore. And the sun was somewhere else.