A love story from Lahore
That night, after dinner, everyone was sitting in the sitting room.
The younger group sat at the periphery of the older generation who sat
around Ami Begum, drinking green tea.
The fragrance of cardamom and cinnamon wafted on the air. The relaxed
code would end when the evening ended so everyone was making the best of
it, and Fahad Shahbaz Chacha’s son followed Mehru to the single chair
she favoured, from where she could watch her family.
He sat at her feet telling her stories and looking up at her in
adoration. He was chatting about nothing and everything, and she was
listening to him with half an ear. He was a sweet boy and she liked him.
He made her laugh.
‘Fahad. Come with me,’ her grandmother’s voice was autocratic. She’d
been in a huff ever since Mehru had beaten Jamal at chess. There was a
sudden break in conversation. With difficulty she got up and went to her
room across the living area, leaving the door open. Fahad followed her.
In a clear voice that was designed to carry, she said, ‘This girl
does not know our ways but you do. Such women are used to playing with
the affections of susceptible males. Be careful. Avoid her. I’m still
not certain she’s even her father’s blood.’
For a few moments everything went very still inside Mehru. Had she
heard her right?
‘Ami Begum, please…’
Fahad’s horrified tones dimmed as he quickly closed the door.
Mehru saw Sania and her mother smirking. Mallo Chachi and Ajoo Chacha
were looking at each other with troubled expressions. She knew her
grandmother had meant for everyone to hear that. She’d wanted to make
them think that she, Mehru, was after Fahad, like some street woman. Her
grandmother had thought this of her since the very first day and now she
was trying to take away the few people who genuinely cared for her.
Something that Mehru had thought was dried up and dead already, died
at that moment again. Her resolve hardened and her abstract notion of
revenge took shape and form. She knew exactly what she was going to do
to break this tyrant who’d broken her family, had punished her
mother-punished her still, even in death.
Two things had become clear to Mehru in the last few weeks she’d been
here. The first was that her grandmother’s silent war on her was no
secret. She said things that were calculated to humiliate her and her
mother far too often and the best response people had was to ignore the
jibes. No one ever mentioned her mother. She had ceased to exist, even
The second thing, Mehru realised, was that the only weakness the old
woman had was Jamal. Her grandmother took great pride in him and his
success. It was obvious also that Jamal barely tolerated Sania, his
betrothed. So the only reason that he was going along with the
engagement was to please Ami Begum, who, seemed secure in the absolute
knowledge that no one was going to defy her, especially not Jamal.
Mehru couldn’t help smiling a little, as she thought that the most
dangerous of all human flaws, was to put one’s trust in another. And
wasn’t that just the most painful of blows, the betrayal of trust? What
could be worse than to be let down by a son. Or surrogate son? And if
history were to repeat itself, what then, grandmother?
She recalled all the lessons that Bibi had thought necessary to
impart to her.
A man cannot resist a damsel in distress. A woman’s tears, after her
beauty are her most potent weapon.She’d always laughed at such archaic
notions and thought that any man who was this malleable would be too
uninteresting for any trouble on her part but now…now she needed to play
a part because a perfect plan had presented itself to her. She was going
to avenge her mother. She knew exactly how to do it too.
Hurt and pain
Mehru dropped her eyes, and when next she raised them, they were full
of hurt and pain, and she didn't raise them randomly—she raised them to
Jamal. Just for an instant…that would be enough. Jamal was the kind of
man who liked to slay dragons and rescue princesses.
He probably told himself the opposite but he was a poet at heart and
a lawyer by necessity. She wasn’t going to pursue him. She was going to
let him do that. Men were intrigued by mystery, unspoken promises and
allure. She just had to overcome her sense of guilt at having to use
Jamal found himself drowning in the depths of the pain reflected in
those stormy grey eyes. Quickly, she’d averted them, as if she didn't
want anyone to see her heartache. But to his detriment, Jamal already
had and he wasn't likely to forget the tortured beauty of this lonely,
brave girl. Ami Begum had been needlessly cruel and vicious.
Unknowingly, Mehru had just broken the last of the barriers he had
erected against her and the feelings she evoked in him. He couldn't
fight it any more, even though he knew he must.
He wasn't some unschooled boy but a man who’d seen the world and had
fought dirty to make a name for himself. He was a hard man, and though,
not cynical he wasn't a romantic either. Love and all, it was stuff of
tales and movies. Why then, did he feel that his heart was no longer
where it should be?
Jamal got up abruptly, and left the room.
Mehru smiled to herself as she watched him go. The plan she’d thought
of was brilliant and she would hit her grandmother where it hurt most.
It was ironically Machiavellian in its justice too. It was a shame that
Jamal would be dragged into the middle of all this but she’d be doing
him a favour, really. He couldn’t get himself out of the mess of Sania
but this way they would both win. Jamal was a sensible man, and when the
time came, he would understand completely. He’d probably thank her by
She got up and followed him outside. She caught up with him outside
in the veranda.
He heard Mehru’s musical voice and stopped in his tracks. There was a
lilt in her intonation. He waited, frozen in his position, with one leg
down on the lower step and the other on the sweeping landing of the
stone steps outside the house, looking over his shoulder. He was
watching her with an insatiable hunger that was becoming a part of him.
It was as familiar to him now as was his own name.
She was almost as tall as him and at six feet he was a tall man, so
she was probably five eight at least, but she still looked fragile. Her
bone structure was delicate.
‘I…I just wanted to say you played really well tonight.’
She seemed nervous. He smiled. ‘Not well enough obviously.’
She twisted her fingers in her hands, bit her lip and dropped her
eyes. She was so very shy, especially with him, he’d noticed. He wanted
to touch her. He wanted to take that plump bottom lip into his
mouth…Shut up! His heart was beating faster and his blood was drumming
in his ears. She was exquisite and she looked so very naïve. Untouched.
Or so he wanted to believe, so very badly.
‘I hope no hard feelings?’
Smiling shyly, she extended her hand. He stared at her and then at
her hand for the longest time. If someone saw them holding hands,
there’d be hell to pay.
But it was such a sweet gesture. His own hand seemed to be master of
its own will and was already enveloping her delicate fingers in his
large ones. Her fingers fluttered in his hand, and he squeezed them
captive, just for a heartbeat, and then he let go.
And he felt desolate. As if he'd lost a prized possession.
‘Good night then.’
‘Good night, Mehru.’
She gave him a full blown smile, as if he’d said something really
clever. And it made him feel like a veritable Hercules, and he felt
ridiculous for feeling that.
Turning on his heels walked away from her. Watch it, you idiot! You
know nothing about her, and you’re practically engaged.
But not quite.
Don’t go there, Jamal chided himself, as he took big steps away from
the main house. Away from Mehru. But even as he said it, he couldn’t
help acknowledging that there was a part of him that yearned for someone
to call his very own; someone who’d look at him as if there was no one
else in the universe but him. Someone he could call his own, totally and
completely. He didn’t even remember his parents and by the time he had a
sense of self, his sister was married and he had become an accessory.
His brother-in-law loved him like a father and his sister had loved him
like a mother too. But still he was an accessory. That was a fact that
He’d always lived by a code. That code of pride and ethics had helped
him survive in a world that could, and was eager to tread on the fallen.
Who would he be without that code of honour?
Ami Begum wanted to reward her daughter and her daughter’s daughter
with a trophy for good behaviour. He’d been chosen as the trophy through
no fault of his. Now Mehru made him feel things he’d never imagined he
could feel. He’d never felt so male before, never been aware of his
masculinity as he was now, as if all his primitive instincts were
aroused and predominant.
He didn’t have a chance, he thought with a kind of Bacchic despair.
Glossary of terms
Chacha: paternal uncle
Chachi: wife of paternal uncle