When the Botany Professor pointed to the flaming orange flowers of the Glory Lily or Gloriosa, in the Nature Trail Park, Sadia remembered that the plant grew in abundance in her aunt Zahida’s house. Her aunt had told her that she used it in making medicines. Sadia decided to confirm the same with the Professor.
“Is it true that this plant has great medicinal value.”
“Yes, every part of it, petals, leaves, seeds, and tubers– all these have healing properties. These are used to cure quite a few ailments–stomach ulcers, gout, rheumatism, piles, and skin disease; it is also used as a laxative and for lessening labor pains.”
“And also for inducing abortion. Mandy had taken recourse to it, last year.” Ritu, her classmate, murmured in her ear.
Sadia was interested in Mandy’s abortion: she was keen to know if the tubers could give relief from the acne which Khalil said resembled the lunar surface. The thought of Khalil, her brother-in-law, brought color to her cheeks–she had got herself into an emotional maze and couldn’t find her way out. Guilt and fear were tearing into her system and seemed to erupt in acne all over her face. She wanted to end the affair before Sharifa suspected anything. She walked to the bus stop, seriously considered moving out of her sister’s place. A car screeched to a halt and she heard Khalil’s husky voice.
“Hello, lovely lady. Can I give you a lift?”
Her heart missed a beat as it had always done, right from the time she first saw him. She smiled and got into the car.
“You look tired. Was the trail too long? Shall we drive down to the river and have some kebabs at Suleiman’s?” Khalil’s dimpled smile set her blood racing.
“Sharifa must be waiting for us,” she mumbled. He smiled. “We will take some kebabs for her. You know she doesn’t like going out; it’s also not advisable in her condition.”
She nodded, as always conscious of his nearness and her desire for him. Disarmingly good looking, amiable and witty he had bowled everyone when he had come to see Sharifa who was at best considered petite and cute. She was no match for Khalil and Sadia was certain that he would not select her. Her mother too was doubtful. But to their surprise, he had agreed to marry Sharifa. But then Sharifa’ was so sweet-tempered, self-possessed and good at housekeeping: qualities which made her an ideal wife and daughter- in- raw material. Sadia liked to believe that Khalil had married Sharifa to please his mother.
But as time passed, it seemed that they got on well. Within a year they had their first baby – a boy. There was great rejoicing. Then just six months later Sharifa conceived again. In the fourth month, due to her delicate health, the doctors advised bed rest. Since the baby needed to be taken care of, their mother was keen that Sharifa should shift to her place. But Sharifa didn’t wish to leave Khalil. It was then decided, on Sharifa’s request that Sadia would stay with her till the delivery. Sadia had willingly agreed; her college was not far from her sister’s place, and she managed to attend to the baby without missing her lectures.
“When are your exams? Hope you are preparing for it.” Khalil asked.
“Two months away.”
“Only two months! That’s quite near. You need to concentrate on your studies. I suggest you go home so that you’re not distracted here.”
Sadia was quite taken back at his suggestion. “Then how will Sharifa manage? Her health isn’t any better now than when I came. She is now in the seventh month!”
“I am getting an assignment which gives sufficient flexibility and therefore I will get time to attend to Sharifa and the baby. You can relax and focus on your studies.”
Sadia was deeply agitated at his insistence that she should return home. She had wanted to end the affair, but she had not expected him to take the initiative. She had hoped, that he would persuade her, might even plead with her not to. He would reluctantly acknowledge his deep dependence on her–his need for her. And here he was so coolly, telling her to go home. Did she matter so little to him? She felt the anger surge within her, but tried to control herself and replied calmly:
“I need to revise some lessons with Ritu. We are doing a combined study at her house which is nearer to here. Once we have finished the exercises, I shall go home.”
“As you please. I just wanted you to know that there is no compulsion on you to stay.”
She felt the redness coming on her face. She clutched her fists and bit her under-lip. Khalil knew very well what her compulsion was: she was desperately in love with him. After all, it was she who had taken the initiative in forging the relationship. She had seduced him. She had hovered around him, in flimsy alluring clothes when he would be working late in the drawing room, on the computer, trying to attract his attention by regaling him with juicy news or showing her concern by making coffee for him or offering to massage his tired back. One night, as she leaned over him swaying her long black tresses he hadn’t been able to resist her. The memory of that night made her hot with desire for him. But he seemed to be impervious to her feelings: he seemed lost in his thoughts. What could be bothering him?
On the way home, Khalil bought some red roses. She felt elated but suddenly realized it was Sharifa’s birthday and the roses were for her! She felt distressed that he had remembered it. Would he remember hers? Was he even aware of the day?
“Great. You remembered Sharifa’s birthday. Do you know I was born three years two months after her?”
“Yes. Sharifa told me.” His nonchalant tone nettled her.
When they reached the house, Sadia brusquely strode in – she didn’t wish to be present when he presented Sharifa with the flowers.
Sharifa was in the bedroom and had just put the baby to sleep. She looked pale and tired
“Adil has been very restless today. Why are you so late? Where is Khalil? He said he would pick you up – that was quite some time back.”
“He is coming…I came ahead to wish you many happy returns of the day.”
“Oh God! I had completely forgotten. Thanks love for remembering. I wish I had made something special for dinner today.” Sharifa said giving her a warm hug.
At the sound of footsteps, Sadia disengaged herself muttering,
“I must go now. Good night. See you tomorrow.”
As she stepped out of the room, Khalil entered with the bunch of roses and a gift under his arm. Averting, her eyes she walked across to her room flustered by the dramatic change in events.
In the mirror, she examined her blotchy skin. Did it make her so unattractive that Khalil was put off by it? She didn’t think so: she was still many times more attractive than Sharifa. Probably, it was guilt: perhaps he was ashamed of his weakness. Whatsoever might be the reason, it mortified her that he had discarded her so summarily. The humiliation was unpalatable and painful – especially when he still had such a hold over her. How was she to get over it – over him?
That night she could hardly sleep. She kept tossing and turning: her mental anguish and seething jealousy made her bed full of nails. She couldn’t bear to face him.
In the morning, Khalil was his usual pleasant self, attentive to her but also clearly distancing himself from her. It was as if they had never been intimate. But what she found most unbearable was his overriding concern for Sharifa. He had always been caring, but now he seemed to be over-anxious. She wanted to get away from their presence – or her annoyance and envy could lead to unpleasant consequences. She would decide during the weekend whether it was suitable to return home. She would also visit Aunt Zahida regarding her acne and itching skin.
But when she returned home that evening, she was surprised to see her mother and aunt Zahida with Sharifa. Their mother rarely visited Sharifa – their house was at the other end of the town, and she was reluctant to travel alone.
“How come, you and Zahida aunty are here? All well I hope?” she asked looking anxiously at Sharifa, who looked serene.
“Yes, my dear. All is well by the Grace of God. But what has happened to your face? Are you so very tense about your studies?” Zahida aunty asked.
“The acne is terrible. Zahida you must do something about it soon.” Her mother’s voice was anxious, eyes worried.
Sadia looked puzzled – she couldn’t understand the reason for the sudden fuss over her pimples!
The baby cried, Sharifa lifted him and went out. Zahida aunty and her mother exchanged glances. Zahida aunty cleared her throat and said:
“Altaf my husband’s nephew is coming next week from Kuwait We thought he was a good match for you. His parent’s, – my brother-in-law and his wife are agreeable if you both like each other.”
Sadia was unprepared for this new development. Still reeling from the after-effects of her entanglement with Khalil, she couldn’t envision herself in another relationship. That too with Altaf! She had met him nearly ten years ago, then a gruff, lanky lad of eighteen. A great bore. Well, he may have changed in the intervening years and was supposed to be doing well in Kuwait. But at present, she wasn’t in a frame of mind to meet him.
“Ma, I have my exams, and I don’t want to think about marriage for a year or so. I’d very much like to do some diploma after my graduation, to equip myself for a job,” she pleaded.
“Oh. You can do all kinds of diplomas you desire. But for now, you have to be at your mother’s place, looking your best when he comes to see you. So collect your belongings. You are coming with us.” Aunt Zaheda’s voice was firm, and her mother didn’t seem to be in a mood for any remonstrance. Sadia resignedly went in to collect her belongings, which to her chagrin had already been packed by Sharifa.
“Damn her!” Sadia muttered. She now suspected – though it was very unlike her sister to connive – that Sharifa was not only aware of the proposal but probably eager to see it materialize. Was it because she had become suspicious about her and Khalil? Then it suddenly crossed her mind: was Khalil too aware of it? Was this the reason for his changed behavior?
“Hurry up Sadia. The rickshaw is here.” She heard Zahida aunty call.
. “All the best Sadia.” She heard Sharifa’s voice and turning around gave her a searing look before getting into the rickshaw
“Why are you behaving in this sullen manner? You didn’t even wish her goodbye,” her mother chided her.
“Why should I? She seems so keen to get rid of me. Couldn’t even wait for me to reach home.”
“What are you talking about?” Her mother looked at her sharply. “I had rung her up and asked her to pack your stuff.”
“You mean to say that she is not aware of the proposal?”
“Yes, I told her. What’s wrong with it?”
The auto turned the lane in which Zahida aunty stayed.
“Why are we going to Zahida aunt’s house?”
“To drop her and pick up the paste for your acne and blotchy skin.”
Her mother continued to sit inside the auto while Sadia went in to collect the paste prepared from the tubers of the Glory lily plant.
From the kitchen window, she could see the blazing orange, red flowers of the plant. Suddenly the Professor’s words flashed in her mind:
“Aunt, is it true that the powder made from grinding these tubes can be lethal? That’s what my Botany Professor said.”
“Yes, if you take more than 6gms or so. Here’s the paste. Put it on morning and evening, let it dry for ten minutes, and then wash off with rose water. Your acne will disappear in a few days. Also, drink warm water every morning. You will glow my dear and Altaf will not be able to resist you.”
Sadia took the paste and joined her mother in the auto. As they made their way home, her mind was in turmoil: she knew that she had no future with Khalil, but she found it difficult to let go of him and accept someone else in her life. If only, some other woman instead of Sharifa had been there, she would have tried to blackmail or browbeat Khalil into divorcing her. But now, all she could do was to wring her hands and compromise.
The next few days she tried to concentrate on her studies and follow the regimen prescribed by Zahida aunty. Soon her skin was glowing – clear of blemishes and acne.
“You look lovely, my dear,” said Zahida aunty – who arrived a day before Altaf and his family – giving her an admiring look.
Sadia, however, felt her heart freeze at the thought of her meeting with Altaf. She didn’t know how she would react if he liked her. But under pressure from her mother and aunt, she dressed up for the occasion.
They arrived at 7 pm and she was shocked to see Khalil with them .
“Why is he here?” She asked trying to still the panic in her voice.
“I called him. He is the son-in-law. He has a right to be here.” Aunt Zahida informed.
“Really! Does he also have a say in the selection?”
“Can. But the decision will be yours. Now let’s go in,” her mother said adjusting her dupatta.
She swallowed hard and walked into the drawing room. The moment she entered, her eyes met Khalil’s, and her heart was aflutter. She quickly lowered her eyes and walked and sat near Altaf’s mother who beamed at her admiringly: “God be praised, Sadia has grown into a beautiful girl.”
She looked at Altaf – there was an approving gleam in his bespectacled eyes. Neatly dressed, average-looking, somber-faced young man – he was so different from Khalil. She felt no attraction for him.
Her mother, however, seemed keen about the match. “I was so happy when Zahida brought Altaf’s proposal. It’s hard to get such eligible boys, nowadays.”
“For that, you should thank Khalil’s parents. They praised Sharifa’s so much, we immediately agreed. “Altaf’s father said.
“Yes,” confirmed Altaf’s mother. “Sharifa is such a gentle, loving girl and such a good homemaker.”
“I am blessed to have such a life partner.” She heard Khalil say and a stab of jealousy and hatred for Sharifa mingled with anger for Khalil pierced her. If he thought he could assuage his conscience by palming her off on Altaf, then he was a damn fool.
But, the major problem was convincing her mother, who the very next day started pressing her to accept the proposal.
“What is lacking in him? On what grounds should we refuse him?” She asked.
“He is not my type?”
“What’s that? She asked puzzled. “Do you like someone?”
“No. But, I don’t like Altaf.”
“What is the reason for your dislike?”
“There is no particular reason. I don’t want to get married yet.”
“His parent’s aren’t in a hurry. They will have the engagement now and the marriage after six months. They said you can continue your studies after marriage and are not averse to your working. What more do you want, ungrateful child?”
Unable to hold back her resentment she burst out,”I want a husband as smart and amiable as Sharifa’s… I am so much better looking than her.”
“Shut up, you vixen! What do you have, except a pretty face? Your vile temperament will not change. You were always competing with your sister, snatching her things. You have forgotten that for two years after your father’s death, till his pension was released, she did tuitions after college – so that you could complete school.”
“How many times have you reminded me of it? You always preferred her to me.” She shouted.
“Yes, because, unlike you, she understood my difficulties. With my failing health, I don’t wish to delay your marriage. I have decided to accept the proposal.”
Despite Sadia’s pleas, her mother gave consent. A week later a small engagement ceremony was to take place. Sadia was heartbroken: she found the thought of living with Altaf unbearable.
She was mad at Khalil for going out of the way to facilitate the engagement. Moreover, he was not taking her calls. She, therefore, decided to confront him. She went to his office and barged into his room. He was startled, seeing her.
“What’s the matter?”
“Are you asking me? You know I don’t want to marry Altaf. You know I love you.”
He looked pained, “I am sorry Sadia, for whatever happened. For your sister’s sake, I beg you to forget and forgive …”
“I love you.” She cried embracing him.
He gently disengaged himself, whispering, “Take hold of yourself Sadia. I cannot leave Sharifa.”
She moved away from him, her eyes blazing, “So you love her.”
“Let’s see if Sharifa will remain with you when she learns…”
“I beg you Sadia, spare Sharifa. She is not in a condition …please for the sake of our son, our unborn …”Khalil broke into tears.
Sadia walked out of the room upset and indignant as the realization hit her that he had all along loved Sharifa and had only used her. Her mind writhed with jealousy and hatred for Sharifa. She felt unloved and life seemed unbearable. She mulled desperate options: running away and even committing suicide by taking an overdose of the Glory Lily paste. Then an evil voice whispered a way out of her predicament: she tried to still it, but it persisted.
A couple of days before the engagement ceremony, Sharifa came over to stay as Khalil had to attend an urgent court case in Dehradun. She looked very pale, and Khalil seemed much stressed about her well-being and relaxed only after many assurances from her mother.
In the night, since Sharifa wasn’t keen to have dinner, her mother asked Sadia to make soup for her. While making the soup, she remembered the paste which aunt Zahida had given her, and like one possessed, she stirred a large spoonful of it into the bowl.
Placing the bowl in a tray, desperately trying to calm her agitated mind, and silence her conscience, she walked to her mother’s room where Sharifa was resting. She stopped short, hearing Sharifa’s pleading voice.
“Ma, Sadia doesn’t seem happy about the marriage. Please don’t force her.”
“You always take her side. Now be reasonable. What is lacking in the boy except that he is not dashing – flamboyant? She is a very superficial girl. She doesn’t know what is right for her.”
“Ma give her some time. Let her exams be over. I haven’t seen her so disturbed and sad before.” Sadia felt contrite: like umpteen times before, Sharifa was taking her side, she was concerned about her happiness and well-being. As she stood hesitant and confused, her eyes met her little nephew’s – he had toddled to the door and was staring at her– his eyes innocent and trusting. Disconcerted by his innocent gaze, she hastily walked back to the kitchen, as her mother came and picked him up. Her heart was thumping badly. Her hands were numb. The trust in the child’s eyes brought forth the memory of a nightmarish incident, from the deep recesses of her mind like a burst of lightning, shaking her very being.
The incident took place when they had been visiting their grandmother’s farm in the village. She was about seven years old and liked chasing the chickens and the goats on the field. One late afternoon, when Sharifa and her grandmother were sleeping, and her parents had gone visiting relatives in a nearby town, she had wandered out and had chased the chickens far across the empty, deserted fields. She soon realized that she had gone too far off into unfamiliar land and the sun was setting. Nervous and frightened, she started running as darkness gathered around, and fell into a deep pit. Terrified she screamed for help, but the house was far away and the fields deserted. Then it started to thunder, lightning flashed across the darkening sky and rain started pouring, drenching her, muffling the sound of her cries as she howled miserably. The incessant rain lashed her face, and to her horror water started filling in the pit. Panic seized her, and with all her might she called out to Sharifa and like magic she heard Sharifa’s answering call. Anxious that they shouldn’t miss her – she screamed, “Help me! .I am in the pit.” Then a light flashed across the darkness, and she heard the sound of men’s voices. Moments later a torch shone on her face, and she saw Sharifa’s dear face, contorted with crying and with her were the two farm hands. The men pulled her out, and Sharifa hugged her and cried with joy– seeing her safe and sound.
That night, as their grandmother tucked her into a warm bed, she had asked Sadia, what would have happened to her, if Sharifa hadn’t come to rescue her? Sadia remembered replying very confidently that she trusted her sister always to be there when she needed her. And in all those years Sharifa hadn’t broken that trust. But what had she done? She had responded to her love and confidence with such perfidy. Tears of repentance streamed down her cheeks as she poured the soup into the sink.
Humera Ahmed resides in Mumbai, a short story and travel writer. Humera also has a collection of short stories and a travel memoir published under the titles – “Checkmate and “A Year in Himachal”.
Humera Ahmed is the founding member of an e-magazine Ehsas for women which showcases success stories of women from marginalised sections of society. An avid blogger, You can find her blogging her travels on Hunernama