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Mehrunnisa:

A love story from Lahore

Chapter 19

After leaving Mehru and Jamal, Bibi went straight to Ami Begum’s house. Gulaabo was in the kitchen as usual and Bibi greeted her with a hug and whispers, ‘He’s there with her. Pray that all goes according to plan. I gave Mallo begum Mehru’s novel last time. I think her father knows now. But her grandmother?’

‘Hai, Bibi. It’s all up to you and Mallo now. I was taking tea out.’

‘I’ll come with you. You ask me to read something for entertainment. Tell Mallo begum as well.’

Gulaabo nodded with a smile and carried the tea tray out first leaving Bibi to follow with the other tray.

Warm breeze

As usual, the ladies were all sitting outside enjoying the evening. The floors had been sprinkled with water all around. The lawn too had been newly watered. The warm breeze was cool by the time it reached the verandah and the ladies. The air still smelled warm and scented with the jasmine flower.

When Bibi came forward, Mallo greeted her with enthusiasm.

‘Salaam, Bibi. How wonderful that you came at my invitation. We are so happy to see you.’

She got up and hugged Bibi. Over her shoulder, Bibi watched Ami Begum’s reaction. She didn’t look pleased.

‘Ask me to read from the novel, Mallo Begum’, Bibi whispered.

‘Ami Begum, I invited Bibi today because I wanted to share with you that beautiful story I talked to you about. I asked Bibi to read it to us. I hope you don’t mind?’

Ami Begum raised her cold eyes to Bibi and said with a smile, as frosty as her eyes.

Courtesans

‘Of course I don’t. I hear courtesans are taught the art of reading and recitation as well as singing. I’m sure our guest will entertain us suitably.’

Bibi bristled at the reminder of her old life but she smiled and said, ‘Yes, Begum Sahiba, you are absolutely right and I will try my best.’

Bibi opened the book and read:

This story may have begun ages ago, but it became mine with my grandmother. My father called her Ami Begum, and later I found out that so did everyone else. My mother used to talk about her with longing and fear and for years I didn’t understand why.

When I understood why I hadn’t seen her and why my father, who obviously loved his mother beyond reason, didn’t live with us. I understood my mother’s sadness and that understanding became my curse because that day I lost my father and the grandmother had never seen.

Proud woman

Since then I have met her. I have seen her and lived with her too, though, neither one of us wanted that. She isn’t what I had expected her to be. She is a proud woman. A graceful matriarch. A woman of courage.

Yet, she is also the woman I blame for my mother’s death.

Yes, gentle reader, my mother died alone and helpless, still waiting for her husband to come and claim her and their daughter. She died of a broken heart. My grandmother, is a woman of grace and courage, yes. She is also a murderer.

‘Stop.’

The word rang out in the silence of the evening. The birds had not yet begun their songs. Bibi had been so engrossed in the reading she’d forgotten her audience. Now she looked up to behold Ami Begum’s pale face.

‘What is this? Who wrote this? Is this a joke?’ she asked.

‘This is a novel, Ami Begum,’ said Mallo. ‘It’s by a new writer. I’ve read it and I liked it very much and I thought you would too.’

‘Shall I continue?’ asked Bibi.

Everyone looked at Ami Begum. She stared at something far away, not answering for a bit. Then she looked up and said decisively, ‘Yes, Bibi. Please do.’

It was time, Mehru thought.

Love letter

She had to give her first and only love letter to her husband and get it over with. It was eating at her. It was lying in the drawer mocking her. Bibi had been gone two days now. Two days Jamal had stayed. They had hardly spoken. He watched her though. When he thought she wasn’t looking, he watched. She liked that.

Even though he’d said their marriage was a curse. Even though he’d said that he didn’t like who he became with her. Even then. Her heart sank. It was stupid. Stupid. How could she tell him she loved him when he thought so lowly of her?

‘Any possibility of getting some food around here? It’s two o’ clock.’
Mehru sniffed.

‘Kareem chacha is warming it up.’
Under her breath she complained, ‘Food! As if there’s nothing else in life.’
‘What was that?’ Jamal asked politely.

She looked up at him, utterly disgusted. ‘Is there anything else that you think about, except food? Especially at a time like this?’

He smiled.
‘At a time like this? Is this a special time?’

‘Yes. We have never been this alone before. Together.’
‘Hmm. What are the accepted thoughts at a time like this? When we are alone…together?’

‘You’re mocking me.’
‘Do you blame me?’

She couldn’t help smiling and teased him back, ‘Well, there’s poetry…’

‘Not going to happen.’
‘How about a discourse on my beauty?’ she laughed.
‘Tempting.’

Her laughter vanished and she gasped, ‘Really?’

Stormy seas

Laughing, he said, ‘Where to begin? Shall I tell you how beautiful your eyes are…like stormy seas? There’s a sadness in them that pulls at the heart…’

She stared into his eyes and decided to give him the letter.

‘Wait here,’ she said and rushed into her study. Jamal looked surprised but didn’t move.

‘What’s this?’ He asked taking it from her, his eyes searching her face.

‘It’s just…something I wanted to say to you. Read it please? I’ll be in my study, waiting for your answer.’

So saying Mehru vanished into her study. And waited. What would he say? What would he do? Would he be happy? Would he care? What if she had already killed their love? She started cleaning her desk, just to have something to do. Then she rearranged her books.

Then she sat down at the desk and tried to read but her eyes kept wandering to the door.

She gave up the pretence and waited with her eyes on the door. It had been an hour already. So she decided to be patient. Her heart had shrunk to the size of a peanut though.

At last the door opened. Her heart lifted. Her breath hitched.
Jamal walked in.

He wouldn’t meet her eyes. Mehru’s heart shrank again. He sat down on a chair and stole a glance at her.

‘Mehru…do you mean it this time?’

She opened her mouth and nothing came out. She’d lost her tongue. That was the moment that she chose to lose her voice. She nodded.

‘How can I trust you?’ he asked. He got up and paced the small study. She’d never realised how small it was before.

‘I…it’s impossible for me to do that and yet…I want so much to believe you.’

Mehru’s eyes swam and a smile broke on her lips at his words.

‘I mean it. I mean every word of it,’ she whispered shakily.
Jamal looked back, eyes tortured, face grim. He sat down again, still looking at her.
‘Give me time?’

She nodded and let her tears drop.
‘I’m so…’

‘Please,’ she said, ‘don’t say anything. I know after what happened, it’s difficult for you. I just can’t help crying. I mean to say that it’s only natural so just ignore it. Don’t worry about it.’

He looked into her face riveted.
‘I understand. I really do,’ she said smiling through her tears.
‘You’re so beautiful.’

Darkness

It should have made her happy. Yet her heart dipped and her smile dried up. Jamal didn’t sound passionate, merely observant. Something inside Mehru stirred uncomfortably. Was he ever going to forgive her for what she’d done to him?

The thought made her say his name in panic, as if to block out the darkness that was beginning to eclipse her tiny sun.

‘Hmmm?’ he asked, still watching her almost impassively.

What could she say? Love me back? Don’t hurt me back? What could she say after all that had happened between them? She had even written him a love letter but even that was not enough.

‘Nothing,’ she said because she knew she was defeated. There was nothing more to say. It was up to him now.

He gave her an odd look then and said, ‘I don’t want any more secrets between us, Mehru. I don’t want to be blind-sided with anything so if there’s anything you want to tell me about your life…anything at all?’

Mehru squirmed. It was too early for her to tell him about her writing. She didn’t want to tell him until she was sure that he could love her too.

After all it was all of her, in her writing, no buffers and no masks. If she were to tell him about her writing, it would be another way to declare her love. She felt squeamish.

Even after reading her avowals, her deep dark secrets, her weaknesses and her confessions, he still didn’t believe her. He still couldn’t forgive her. If she told him even that one small secret that she had left and he rejected her still, how would she bear that?

She had a strange sense of foreboding.
‘I’ve already laid my heart bare to you. What else could there be?’

Jamal’s expression changed. It became shuttered, stony and he said, ‘So that’s how it’s going to be? Even now?’

Glossary of words:
Begum: madam
Sahiba: madam
Chacha: suffix denoting respect for elder man

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