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Mehrunnisa:

A love story from Lahore

[Chapter 8]

Mehru was sitting with her female relatives in the verandah. Ami Begum on her takht, delicately chewing paan, the rest of the women, some embroidering, some cutting silver mukaish strips for chiffon dupattas.

Her grandmother said, ‘I’ve been thinking. Jamal and Sania should get married in September this year instead of February next year.’

Mehru’s jaw tightened. Mallo Chachi said, ‘It’s up to you Ami Begum but we should maybe, discuss with Ajoo…’

‘Yes, of course we, will Mallo. But what do you think?’

‘It’s as you wish Ami Begum.’

‘Hmm. Good. Tell Ajoo and the others that after tea on Friday, I wish to discuss an important matter with all of them. After tea, I want all the children to go back to their rooms. Only the adults will stay behind.’

‘Ami Begum,’ asked one of the aunts who was expecting, ‘if I may also be excused?’

‘Of course, Nighat. Don’t worry about it. I know I can count on your support. You should be resting.’

‘Than you Ami Begum,’ she said gratefully.

Grandmother

When Mehru and Bibi were back in their room, Bibi said, ‘I will try to stay back and hear what is decided. I think, your grandmother is worried. I think she is no longer sure of Jamal’s obedience.’ Mehru’s voice was cold.

‘I won’t let her win again, Bibi.’ Bibi, now concerned about her but also happy to push Mehru into pursuing Jamal, since she thought that was the only way her little dove could be safely ensconced in her home, said, ‘Slow and steady, Mehru.’

‘If you’re right. If she is unsure of Jamal…what should I do now?’

‘Wait for him to make the move now. He’s a traditionalist.’ Mehru nodded, ‘I think so too. So now we wait and see.’ Bibi heard Jamal’s voice as she brought in the new pot of tea.

He sounded weary when he said, ‘That’s too soon, Ami Begum.’

Nonsense

‘Nonsense! September is two months away and we’ll have plenty of time to prepare. What do you think Mallo? Nighat?’

The women responded but Bibi didn’t hear because she was watching Jamal. He looked irritated but also…resigned. He was studiously avoiding looking at any one. She wished sincerely that she hadn’t miscalculated and that Jamal had been susceptible to Mehru. But what if she was wrong? Her plan of safety for Mehru depended on him entirely.

Would he have the courage to defy his grandmother? She couldn’t let him be a pansy now. She’d put in too much effort and the sooner Mehru was settled, the better. The talk had shifted by then to the details. Jamal got up in agitation and said, ‘Please excuse me.’

The women laughed, thinking he was shy and he fled with a face of granite.

Bibi followed suit. She reported back to Mehru.

Mehru felt the anger and frustration rise. Her grandmother was going to best her again. She couldn’t allow that to happen.

‘Jamal looked very unhappy.’

Woman

‘How is that going to help us, until and unless he chooses to say something, Bibi? I’m telling you that woman—‘

‘Your grandmother.’

‘Ugh!’

Bibi ignored the impatient sound and said, ‘Prepare yourself for next week. Jamal must act soon or everything will be lost.’

Mehru nodded and Bibi came over and hugged her.

‘My little schemer.’ She kissed the top of her head and said, ‘You will win, you’ll see. I’m here with you and when have I ever failed you, huh?’ Mehru smiled and hugged Bibi back.

Mehru couldn’t wait for next Friday when they’d all gather for tea again. She wore her light blue lace traditional kurta and churidaar, to enhance her grey eyes and looked demure and pretty, making sure she never raised her eyes to anyone but Jamal.

As far as he was concerned, Jamal had eyes for no one but Mehru.

Marriage

He watched her surreptitiously. She looked sad and unhappy at the news of his impending marriage, or was it just his wishful thinking? She seemed upset, as if her world were crumbling around her. That night in the study too, she’d nearly admitted to having feelings for him, hadn’t she? She’d stopped before she said anything that would be too bold.

After all, she was a well-bred lady. She looked at him again, as if…in recrimination. His heart suddenly jumped and even as she dropped her eyes, Jamal knew he had to ask her. He had to tell her how he felt…and if he made a complete fool of himself, well, he’d just have to live with it wouldn’t he?

Revenge

Even though she’d been expecting him to follow, Mehru’s heart gave a sudden lurch. Guilt was a bad combination to have with a thirst for revenge. She’d been watching him build his resolve throughout the evening. He was going to declare himself, as they said.

They were alone in the garden and the sun was almost setting. The blaze was mellow, orange and russet in the sky. She saw him approach in his signature white shalwarkurta. He looked troubled. For a moment he didn’t raise his eyes but when suddenly he did, meeting her gaze head-on, almost defiantly, she was almost sorry for the pain she was going to cause him later. He looked miserable already.

‘Mehru…I’m going to ask you something…the only reason I’m asking is because I don’t want to involve the elders unless there’s a reason for it. And if you say that there isn’t…well, then just chalk it up to my misunderstanding and we’ll both forget this ever happened.’

Mehru’s heart thundered, despite knowing, that it was all a sham.
‘What do you mean Jamal? I don’t…’
‘I…Mehru…do you think you could possibly…’

Right words

He stopped again as if he couldn’t find the right words. And he was supposed to be some magician in the courtroom. Mehru nearly smiled at his discomfort but she couldn’t help him out. He was a romantic and he had to fulfil his quest of claiming the princess himself. Yawn…but oh well, whatever.

‘The only reason this whole business with Sania…it’s because of Ami Begum. I have no attachment at all to her, or any other girl. But ever since…’

He looked at her without the trouble in his eyes and they were velvety again, and dreamy as he continued smiling, ‘ever since you came, I haven’t been myself. If there is the slightest chance that you might feel…even a little bit, like how I feel about you, I could…defy the world for you.’

He should have been a poet not a lawyer, she thought, even as she batted her eyes and looked away with a shy smile, hoping she wasn’t overdoing it.

‘You do? You…would? Oh…Jamal…’
She smiled, then let it falter and whispered miserably, ‘But Ami Begum…’
‘She’s my problem-but you didn’t answer my question?’
‘I can’t let her…she’ll hate you too because I’m an outsider…’
‘Nothing matters to me except for what you feel, Mehru…for me?’

Tricks

He’d come closer but he didn’t touch her. That was his training as an honourable male. Mehru was sure there was plenty of that kind of stuff going on here as well as anywhere, but Jamal was of another breed of men. The upright and noble kind--that was why he was falling for her tricks, noble people expected everyone to be honourable.

‘Mehru…please tell me I’m not wrong in hoping that you feel the same way for me because if you don’t, I’ll never bother you again, I really…’

She spun around, her face showing misery and reluctant joy. ‘You know that I do…Jamal, how could I not? But it’s wrong of me! You’re engaged to Sania, my grandmother hates me…I can’t let you do this. It’s madness!’

‘Maybe it is…but I’d rather revel in this madness than be sane.’

Talk about romance and poetry!His eyes were full of fire now, joy, wonder and desire…‘So, you…’ he stared at her, his eyes perusing her face in the sultry dusk. His voice was still full of wonder, ‘You’ll marry me, Mehru?’

She hesitated for just an instant and then said, smiling, ‘Yes. If you’re sure that’s what you want?’

He gave a laugh that was full of joy.

Propriety

‘God, yes! All my life I’ve been a model of propriety. I’ve never stepped out of line. I never believed in notions of falling in love, and not for an instant did I ever imagine that I was capable of the kinds of emotions you bring out on me…it’s all very new to me. I’ve paid my debts with Bi Jee…and if I haven’t, so be it.

But I will not give you up, not now or ever…for anyone. I’ve never felt like this before…I feel disoriented.’

Mehru felt a little embarrassed for him. The poor dear! But she masked her discomfiture and said softly, ‘You should be sensible, Jamal. Are you sure you understand what you’re saying? You’ll be ostracised if you so much as hint at...this.’ He had to believe he was fighting for her, or he wouldn’t be effective. He came forward smiling, and taking both her hands in his, kissed their palms. Mehru hated herself then. Thought of telling him, confessing everything and apologising. He was so nice. She shouldn’t do this to him.

‘Mehru you’ve awoken a part of my soul I never knew I had. I’m never going to let anything take you away from me.’The smile he shared with her was full of promise and happiness. ‘I can’t wait to begin my new life with you, Mehru.’

Voice

His voice had become as velvety as those brown eyes. All this talk of souls and eternal love was making her dizzy. ‘Jamal…wait..’

‘Mehru! Jamal!’

Bibi descended upon them like the wrath of God and knocked all doubts out of Mehru’s head.

‘Young man I did not expect this from you! And you!’ She said pointing at Mehru, who tried not to laugh, ‘Did I raise you to be this wanton?’

Bibi’s voice was raised and she was crying, and sniffing and still sounded outraged. ‘You, Sir, are out of line…’

Jamal tried to soothe her, ‘Bibi, please listen. I want to marry her. I’m asking Mehru to marry me…’

Bibi’s tears vanished, her sniffing ceased and her outrage increased. ‘And who does that, huh? Go talk to her father as is proper. Go!’

Jamal looked at Mehru, looking slightly pale. It was time to play the shy virgin again.

‘Jamal…I think I should go now…please, please don’t do anything foolish that will make your life difficult. I care for you too much to let you do that. If you decide to not do this I’ll understand…nothing can ever change the way I feel for you.’

With that coup de grace she ran up the steps, with Bibi following her like a hawk on hunt.

Jamal watched her receding back. She hadn’t said she loved him but he hadn’t expected her to either. In fact, he would have been surprised if she had. She’d obviously been brought up with a strict code.

Fanciful

There wasn’t anything in the world to stop him now. She loved him, he knew. He wasn’t being fanciful. Love, it seemed did exist. Jamal laughed again and his laughter was as full of wonder as his thoughts. He couldn’t remember ever having this feeling of intoxication in his life. He felt as if he belonged at last…and someone belonged to him. Only him.

He went straight to Mehru’s father.
Glossary of terms

Takht: a big ornate wooden throne-like chair
Paan: beetle-leaf

Mukaish: an art-form in embroidery of silver pieces especially manufactured for this purpose are used.

Dupatta: scarf
Kurta: shirt

Churidaar: a skinny jeans kind of traditional wear with gatherings at the ankle.
Shalwar: a loose trouser

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