As the Air India plane took off from Heathrow Airport Ayesha let the tears she had kept in check flow down her cheeks She was leaving England where she had been born and lived all of her eighteen years except for brief sojourns in Dubai and Mumbai – perhaps for good. But this sense of displacement had begun more than a year back when her father had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. As the countdown started, he became obsessed with the afterlife, and regretted digressing from practicing his faith, after Jean filled the vacuum left by Ayesha’s mother’s death, nearly a decade ago. As the dreaded disease spread its tentacles he desperately turned to God and prayers. He also became very anxious of Ayesha’s future. For all his emotional bonding with Jean and love for Christopher, her son from an earlier marriage, he was apprehensive of her influence on Ayesha and fearful of her marrying a non-Muslim. A few days before his death he had called his sister Shamim and made her promise to take Ayesha to her house in Sussex after his demise or send her to her maternal grandparents in India.
His death had therefore dramatically changed her life. She lost her home, friends and her freedom. She was forbidden to meet Jean and Christopher with whom she was very close. Now her life was strictly monitored by her aunt under the guidance of the Mufti of the local Islamic Center. She had to don the Indian attire of Salwar Kameez and cover her head but was fortunately exempted from wearing the Naqab which her cousin Amena did when she stepped out of the house. Her daily routine was rigorous: besides attending the local school and preparing for her A levels, she attended the Islamic school for learning the Quran, study the Life of the Prophet and his Companions and the four Rightly Guided Caliphs as also the fundamentals of Islamic Jurisprudence. And all the while she was made acutely conscious of her gender which determined her gaze, her garments, her speech, her gait, in brief her whole personality. She had never ever been so conscious of being a Female – her genitals now seemed to determine all aspects of her life and world view!
“Are you a vegetarian or non veg?” She heard the airhostess, ask her co-passenger. Now that was not the only choice she had to make. If it was non veg, she had to ascertain whether it was Halal. She didn’t want to ask, so she just mumbled vegetarian even before the airhostess asked her. Exhausted she stuffed herself with whatever was placed before her and dropped off to sleep, waking up just minutes before the flight landed in Mumbai.
As soon as the plane landed, frenetic activity followed: belts were unbuckled, mobiles switched on, people scrambled to open overhead lockers and made a beeline to get off the plane. As she took down her cabin baggage her mobile rang. It was grandfather and as rehearsed for days, she greeted him with the customary Salaam and asked about his and grandmother’s health. He sounded quite jovial when he informed, “You can identify me from afar. I look distinguished with my silvery locks, blue jacket over a Khadi Kurta.”
Half an hour later she found him standing with a ‘Welcome Ayesha’ placard. He was tall and distinguished looking – the old Nawab type. He reached out and hugged her warmly: “You look so much like you mother. Your grandmother’s going to get very sentimental. So be prepared for being drowned in her tears.”
As they drove from the airport to aunt Roshan’s flat in Cuffe Parade nearly 30 km away in the warm, humid rank smelling air, she felt she was in a different world, nay in many worlds: of skyscrapers, corporate offices, glitzy malls, shanties, mosques, churches, temples, all coexisting around crowded roads cramped with cars, buses, auto rickshaws, scooters, motor bikes, beggars, urchins selling wares at traffic lights! As she looked around bewildered, grandfather beamingly announced, “You are just in time for Asma’s engagement party. It’s in the evening. The match was fixed just a few days back. The boy is in Jeddah – a bright boy, decent family.”
“Today!” She gasped. Now this was too much to ingest: she was to face a new set of people. Life seemed to have become a roller coaster ride or one of those action packed Hindi films. As she expected there was great excitement in the brightly decorated spacious flat, which overlooked the Arabian Sea. Grandmother, still chic at seventy – unlike aunt Roshan, a successful lawyer who had wrapped her dowdy self in yards of Muslin – was all agog to meet her. Her bright eyes were bleary with tears. “You are even prettier than she was at this age. She didn’t have such a glowing skin. Must be the English weather. You are going to be the cynosure of all eyes at the engagement.”
Grandfather laughed. “But the men won’t get a chance to see her. Poor guys. “The bridegroom‘s side had wanted a segregation of men and women. Hence the boy’s side ceremony was to be in their neighbor Mr. Jaleel’s house. Grandmother sighed, “Life styles are changing so fast and it is the young who are calling the shots. Now girls cover themselves in front of cousins and male relatives. But never mind, Ayehsa will accompany us in a burqa. Men can discern beauty even behind the Naqab.” And everyone laughed at her remarks.
But the events of the evening proved grandmother right: the gravitation pull of the sexes defied the Purdah and the Burqa. She had accompanied her grandparents and male relatives to Mr. Jaleel’s place where her grandfather was to present the ring and garland to the bridegroom whose mother would perform the same ceremony on Asma. As per Islamic tradition, the bride and groom could not touch each other before the Nikah. It was such a pity because Asma looked lovely in a magenta pink sharara and smelled heavenly after the elaborate aromatic beauty treatment.
The groom was a good looking boy with a bushy beard, very particular about following the fundamentals of the faith and was considered extremely fortunate for being so close to Mecca that he could perform the Friday prayers in the mosque near the House of God. His family members too frequently visited the Holy site. Feeling lost in the gathering of bearded men and black shrouded women, Ayesha looked around for an escape and suddenly became conscious of being watched. Turning around her eyes met the piercing gaze of a young man. He was different from the assemblage: tall good looking, clean shaven, casually dressed in shirt and pants. He smiled and she hastily looked away and moved towards the divan where the groom and his parents were seated for the ceremony. She heard her grandfather call out: “Ayesha, get the ring.”
She handed the ring which he presented to the boy, who displayed it to the bright eyed relatives and friends gathered around and then slipped it on his index finger. Everyone said a prayer in Arabic and grandfather garlanded the groom and then his parents, as sweat meats and dry fruits were distributed around.
That night, sleep eluded Ayesha. Within twenty four hours she seemed to have traversed continents and different civilizations: London, Jean, Christopher, Dad and her friends all seemed to belong to another life but to which she still cleaved and dreaded this baffling new life. But in the disturbing kaleidoscope of images, one lingered on: the piercing gaze of the good looking young man. Who was he? She wondered before sleep overtook her.
In the morning grandmother was very excited. Even in her shapeless burqa Ayehsa’s fair beauty had attracted attention and grandmother had at least three proposals lined up – all from rich devout Muslim families.
“They are very rich and the boys are religious. They were impressed by your attire and behavior. Must congratulate Shamim for training you so well.”
“But, I don’t want to marry so soon. Would like to study further.” Ayesha pleaded
“But they are all so well-to-do, you don’t have to work. Asma intervened.
“Ok.” Grandfather said. “No hurry .Let her take her time. She is still young. What do you want to study?”
“Not really decided. When Dad was ill and I was looking after him, I thought I would become a doctor or nurse. But Shamim aunty says Muslim girls should not become nurses. So I was thinking of taking Biology and ...”
“Admissions are over for the degree courses. You can do some short courses. How about fashion designing? Asma suggested. Ayesha shrugged her shoulders – she didn’t feel inclined towards it.
In the week that followed Ayesha realized to her dismay that the world she now inhabited was really narrow: it was so restricted and so regimented, it seemed robotic. The day centered around ablutions, prayers, planning elaborate meals, playing host to friends and relatives who came visiting, return visits, shopping, attending marriage parties etc. The men were busy in their businesses which didn’t tie them down to a 9-5 job and they discussed Halal (religiously accepted) ways of making money which meant not taking interest etc. They were obsessed with following the most correct interpretation of Islam (as directed by the respective Religious schools) which centered around the manner of conducting prayers, keeping the right sized beard and ensuring that the women conducted themselves with propriety. Obedience to husband and male guardians was the hall mark of woman’s piety and goodness. Ayesha couldn’t take it anymore. There was no place here for music, art, theatre, cinema, books – all those which were part of her life before her father developed conscious pangs. But why were these considered impious? Why was piety confined to ritual of prayer and denial of innocent pleasures? She was supposed to erase her past – it was not Islamic. And the attitude of her grandparents was puzzling. Though quite liberal and fun loving (they had a Television set and a state of the art Music system in their room), they didn’t interfere with the life style adopted by their zealous family. They had accepted it. But she couldn’t. The future seemed bleak. Then suddenly life took a new turn. One morning when she responded to the bell, in walked the enigmatic young man and smiled,
“Hello. I am Assad, Mr Jaleel’s son.”
Grandfather introduced them to each other. Asad was a doctor and he had come to check grandfather’s blood pressure, as he was feeling a little uneasy. While she served tea, with relief she heard them discussing not religion but the new Shahrukh Khan film. Grandfather drew her into the conversation asking Asad’s advice for undertaking a useful course. He advised her to do a course in Medical technology. After he left, aunt Roshan scoffed. “He is looking for an assistant in his camps. His parents are quite fed up of him. Mr. Jaleel wanted to set up a clinic and diagnostic center but he prefers working at the Municipal Hospital and is associated with some charitable NGO which conducts camps in Slums and remote god-forsaken villages.” Ayesha suddenly felt a window open in her cloistered life. She got herself enrolled for a Diploma in Medical Technology course. Grandfather encouraged her while others frowned on her friendship with Asad especially when she assisted him in the medical camps in various slums of the city.
“People are talking badly about you. You are damaging your reputation,” they chided. It was considered un-Islamic to go around with a man who was not your Mahram (one who is not your husband or blood relation). They criticized his lack of piety: he didn’t pray, he didn’t keep a beard, he had non-Muslim friends. And worst, he didn’t care about money.
“You are making a big mistake,” Asma warned. “It will be tough living with him. You don’t know when he will take off to the villages.”
“You are assuming too much. First let him ask me.”
But two years later he did. It was while she was assisting him in a health camp of malnourished scrawny children – most of them orphans in a Madrassa located in a slum In the past one year Ayesha had seen his concern and devotion and she realized as she watched the joy on the faces of the children he was attending to, the true meaning of piety. It was not in ritual prayer but in trying to brighten the lives of the sick and the needy. And with it came the consciousness of her heart’s desire: She loved Asad and wanted to be a part of his life. He seemed to sense her train of thoughts. “I am going on transfer to Parbhani next month. Will you come with me?”
She smiled and nodded her head. As their eyes met she realized for the first time since her arrival, that she had come home. And a warm glow filled her heart at the thought of their future together. The sky looked different – bright and shining and the breeze felt cooler.