Saturday, 15 August 2020

Sharjeel Ahmed, ShortStory 2020 Longlist

Can I Ask You Something?


It took her more than twenty minutes to make the call — her hands trembling, her heart pounding — even though she was dead sure that she had to do this. She was also somehow certain that he would agree to her request — she didn't know if she could call it that, so she settled on calling it a favor that she could return someday. He did agree, and she felt so relieved, as if she was freed of a large loan, but her relief lasted only a brief moment.

***

"Can I ask you something?" she asked her ex on the phone. By this time he was tired of being tired of her asking about asking, and him telling her about it, so he let it be. Earlier he would quip, "you just did!" and take some joy in how she never saw his joke coming, but by now he was disinterested in his own jokes. After four years of commitment he could not understand why she thought they had no future, although she was clear from day one that he had to ask her parents and seek their happy approval of the marriage. If they disapprove, it would not be on her, and if they agree but unhappily that too would be unacceptable. They had debated this a thousand times, but the conclusion was always the same — he had to make something of himself that is good enough to have her parents nod in delight, otherwise she'd be marrying whoever they picked for her. That's the way it has always worked in my family — we put family first, she'd tell him.

"Yes, anything," he replied dryly, only half curious, the rest of the half having left him.

"Will you have sex with your wife on the wedding night itself? Won't you wait to get to know her first?" she asked in a tone that reminded him of her lost vigor, but there wasn't any quiver in her voice — it was steady, so he decided that she's okay nevertheless.

How she has decided to move on, he wondered, this girl who until two months ago would tell me she could never live without me, and would beg me to do something to persuade her parents for our match, and is now conjuring up images of us having sex with other people, the people we would go on to marry. I would not be marrying anytime soon, he had told her recently, and she had asked why. Why? How can you not know why, he thought to himself but decided against asking her. She'd go into a bubble of masochism, causing herself intense pain by blaming herself for the breakup, bursting like a water balloon, then recoiling without warning to blame him for everything, and the cycle would be hard to break and the whole thing would blow up to last all night. So he had come to decide that he'd make her feel no guilt, and that was easier decided than done.

How confidently she has concluded that I will marry someone I don't know, he thought. She is not even asking about it; she has made up her mind that I will do what she is doing: let the old folks pick whoever they want for us. That way, the marriage does not feel like betrayal. It has a likeness of force, compulsion by parents, the lack of our consent, a half helplessness. He was still debating with himself whether he can fall in love again, whether he should hold back and see if he could find love again, or just go ahead and get married to the first girl his mother makes a match with. In his family he knew that only his mother will decide, whereas in her family only her father's will worked. Sex was the farthest thing on his mind these days, and he had not thought about how he would approach it if he was to get married to a girl he did not know.

"Why do you ask? I haven't really given it any thought," he told her calmly, drowning inside of his mouth the words that suggested that he might as well find love again, that that was a possibility too.

"I have something to ask of Sayeed bhaiyya. I want to meet him in person and request him, as a pre-condition to our marriage, that he shall not touch me until we go to our honeymoon, which itself should be delayed to the maximum extent allowed by our families. I can't bear the thought of someone other than you touching me."

It struck him as the most ridiculous joke of his life that she was still calling him bhaiyya; elder brother. I grew up calling him Sayeed bhaiyya, I can't suddenly stop now, my subconscious does not register him as anything but the eldest of my cousins, she had explained to him; of course I will stop calling him that after the marriage. Twice she refused to accept his proposal, but thrice her parents blackmailed her. Part of the grief they gave her was the specter of them dying from worry for her marriage; they were old and sick already, and her mother had even survived a small stroke. Her father had high blood pressure and a bunch of diseases, her mother's back was giving out, and in this context her disgust at the incestuous nature of the proposed marriage was given no regard.

"Do you think he will agree to that? He is a man after all. Would he not think that it is too much to ask?" he inquired of her, knowing in advance that she would defend her position with constructed optimism. He tried his best to calm the quake inside of him — she cannot imagine any other man touching her; she won't imagine eloping with me; she can imagine her life as a wife of the man she grew up loving as a brother. Think about her, he told himself, she's cornered; give her a break, be there for her as a cushion, all she's asking is for you to be her friend now, and friends don't judge.

"I will talk to him until he agrees. He loves me the most among all of us, and you know I have dozens of cousin sisters. He won't say no to me. He's a gem; it's another matter that he has balded and grown a paunch. But, he'll never break my heart; he'll never force himself on me. I know Sayeed bhaiyya; it may shock him somewhat but I'm sure he'll understand my worries," she chirped. She was optimistic for a reason, she thought, but he thought she was overly buoyant.

"Well, then, all the very best," he said.

***

If I ask for 10 rupees he shouts at me, she hissed to herself, if I ask for a 100 he throws things at me, and if I don't leave the house he grumbles all day about how his children have nothing to do but warm his furniture. Then she felt ashamed of herself for whining about the same thing for the millionth time — he is my father and I am 23, how did I not get used to him by now? Why is it just me? Why isn't my brother bothered? What is wrong with my sisters? How can they not see him, hear him being such a pain in our lives? Why doesn't anybody say anything? Then, in a way that a powerful pill suddenly sobers the throb and ebbs the pain, she felt a relief in thinking about her impending marriage. No date was fixed yet, no engagement ceremony held, but it was all on course, it would all happen soon. Soon — the word would ping pong between her mind and mouth; how very wonderful it felt to think this misery would end soon, whenever that is. Six months, a year at the most. But that's too long, she thought, and that thought would become a claw made of fear and it would grip her so tight that she'd feel suffocated. She found that the antidote was to think about how much she would miss her mother; that way, she would feel like staying back a while more, a few weeks, months even. She grew up watching her mother begging for a few more minutes with her mother, only to be stared down or shouted at by the great ape. Sometimes she called him nasty names in her head, but in conversation with others she never let her disdain show in full. My father is an angry kind of person, she'd tell her friends or colleagues, instead of telling them that her father was the sickest thing in her life. Only her ex knew that he had whacked her with the back of his hand across her face — her chin, cheek, nose and one eye hurt for two days. There was a swelling and her glasses had broken but she told her mother that she fell off the stairs; she was incoherent in her explanation when her ex asked her why she had lied.

Most hours of each day, she was training herself not to think of her ex. Every time that she would succumb, she would suffer. Why couldn't he have done better with his life? Who would agree to marry their daughter to a college fresher earning 15,000 rupees? Perhaps he should have met her sister and persuaded her first. But then, her mother had cringed at the picture he had sent across with his bio-data — what did you like in him, she had asked her in disgust. She had refused to even bring it up with her father, telling her that her father would only hurl abuses at them all, and also reject the proposal. It is better to forget about it, she had said, and kept bringing up the proposal from Badi Ammi about Sayeed.

Sayeed; how she struggled to make sense of marrying Sayeed. Every time she embraced the thought, her eyebrows would go up, her head would shake quickly, and she would hear a deep sigh. They are all in this together, she would tell herself. All my cousins, all my aunts, my mother, my brother, my sisters, all. Look at the bright side, Mariya, he is such a good guy, Mariya, he'll take good care of you, no, Mariya? How do you expect me to forget that he is my brother, she wanted to ask them, and she did ask them, but she wanted to ask more. How do you expect me to forget all his fart jokes, his bringing me all my favorite chocolates every time he visited Dubai, his calling me his favorite sister, his taking me shopping in the busiest of markets, my sitting with him on his bike, close like siblings, my chest to his back, never a strand of sexual tension between us? And I am supposed to have his babies? Why don't one of you marry one of you? Why me? Why?

She waited for the Maghrib Azaan and watched her father leave home, then briskly walked into the kitchen and touched her mother's arm.

"I thought you were on a strike against any household work? Keep me out of your father-daughter games," her mother said, turning away from her and getting back to the concentric circles she was making with her spatula.

"Mumma, I need to ask you something," she asked weakly, now sounding unsure to herself. What was I thinking, she felt now, although she didn't think or say it. But what was I thinking, she felt like asking herself.

"I told you already, it is not my decision. Your father cannot refuse a proposal made by any of his siblings, and she is the eldest of them all. Her status in the family is only second to that of her mother, don't you know that?"

"Not that, mumma. I want to meet Sayeed bhaiya once. Just the two of us. I have some things to ask him, some requests to make, and I also want to check with him if he was forced into it. I want to hear from him that he wants to marry me and is not doing this only because he is afraid of his mother," Mariya said, and then marveled at how the words spilled out of her mouth without any sputter. It would be much harder than this, she had thought. She had taken the spatula from her mother's hand and was mixing the curry that was on simmer now, and her mother's silence told her she was right in her apprehension. When her mother turned to look at her, Mariya saw a pale white face with eyebrows raised, as if trying to touch the hairline, and mouth wide open, as if trying to reach the neckline.

"Are you out of your mind? Your father will bang your head into a wall!" she screamed, and Mariya grabbed her with both hands and pleaded for her to calm down, keep it low. She knew the old man wouldn't return before a good thirty minutes, but she still kept glancing towards the main door.

"Mumma, I just want to talk. What is so wrong about that? Isn't he my brother after all?"

"Was. Was, was, was. You have agreed to marry him and we have given them our word. You have to think of him only as your husband now, the father of your children to come," her mother scolded her, and Mariya felt defenseless. But, she said to herself, this is not something I can give up on.

"Mumma, please. Imagine how hard it was for me to say yes. All I am asking is for a few minutes to talk some things out. I can tell him what I expect from the marriage and he can tell me what he wants," Mariya pleaded, and saw that something was melting her mother's anguish, either the quiver in her voice or the tears in her eyes. She saw her mother's face change shape, and felt like she had won a worthy battle.

Her mother looked here for a moment, there for a moment; she let out some small sighs, stared blankly at the main door of the house, then let out a large sigh and spoke to her.

"Make him a call. There is no question of meeting him by yourself. Make him a call and talk about whatever the hell you want but nobody other than the two of you should ever come to know about it," she said sternly, but with a warmth perceptible in her voice still.

For once this year, Mariya thought, I'll sleep easy, deep, long. Tomorrow I'll make the call.

***

It took her more than 20 minutes to make the call, her hands trembling all the time that they held the phone.

"Mariya, hello! How are you doing?" she heard Sayeed ask, his tone casual but his voice weird, as if he was panting.

"Sayeed bhaiya, I hope I am not disturbing you," she blurted out, then clenched her teeth in the realization of her folly.

"Haha! I think it is better you call me just Sayeed from now on... No, I was home, and was thinking about talking to you. I am glad you called, actually."

"Oh, were you going to call me? Is there anything important, or did you just wish to say hello?"

"Never mind, we'll get to it. Tell me, how come you called? It has been so long that we spoke, no?"

"Yes, yes it has. Actually, ummm... Can I ask you something?"

"Yes, Mariya; anything."

"Is there any pressure on you, Sayeed? You know, to marry me? I know how our elders can get, and I just need to know that you are not being forced in any way..."

"Ah, no, not at all. Actually, it was never my idea, but when they did suggest it, I was happy to agree. There is no pressure on me, Mariya; don't even think about it!"

"Oh, okay. You were happy about this proposal? I always thought we were just cousins..."

Oh, no, Mariya! Don't get me wrong... I have never looked at you except as my sister. But, I must admit that I have a selfish reason in agreeing to this proposal. Which is why I wanted to talk to you before the marriage or the engagement, but it just never happened. You know how hectic it has been for me lately, no? Work, then all this matchmaking, and I have to tend to every wish of every person, old and young, in the jungle of our family..."

Mariya let out a small laugh at his joke. Our family is far worse than any jungle, she wanted to tell him.

"Yes, yes, I can tell you are busy these days. So, what did you want to talk to me about?"

"Oh, well, we'll get to it. You tell me first, how come you called? Is that all? Did you just want to check if I was forced into this marriage?"

"Umm... No, actually. Umm... There was this favor I need to ask of you. I agreed to this marriage because I know you are the kindest person in our family... you never say no to anybody. We often take advantage of that... Well... Umm... I just never thought I would be getting married like this. I always thought I would like a guy and he would send a proposal and my parents would agree. I am... I am just very afraid of men... You know how my father can get... I am always afraid of men hurting me..."

"Oh, Mariya; come on! I would never behave like your father! Ah! I'm so sorry. I should not have said that. But you understand, right? I would never raise my hand or voice on you, Mariya; you can trust me."

"Yes... Yes, I know. It's just that... I actually don't want a honeymoon after the marriage. It's not like I don't want to have children... We will have children and I promise I will be the best mother to them... I know you will be a great father... But I... You know how your sister had her first daughter in exactly nine months of her marriage... Please don't get me wrong... I was very happy for her... But I am very afraid of that... I just hope that you will wait for us to become friends... To get close and feel free with each other... I just can't imagine somebody touching me... At least not until there is something between him and I... You... Sayeed, you understand what I am trying to,"

"I do," he said quickly, his voice heavy.

"Okay"

"So, you want to have children?"

"Huh?"

"You said that... umm... you want to have children a little later than usual, right?"

"Right. But, I meant that, we will not have sex right after the wedding, and we can go for a honeymoon but later. Like, maybe, six months after the marriage?"

"Yeah... Actually, that's what I wanted to talk to you about..."

***

When Mariya's mother walked into Mariya's room, she found her daughter folded. The back of her head was almost touching her knees, and her body was convulsing, shaking as if it was being shaken. Her phone was on the floor and its back panel had come off.

"Mariya, what happened to you? Why are you crying so much? What is the matter, Mariya? Get up! Sit up first and stop crying, I'll get you some water," her mother screamed.

"Ma, I can't marry Sayeed bhaiya, Ma. Please Ma. I cannot marry Sayeed bhaiya, ma!"

"What? Did you call him? What happened, Mariya? Tell me what is wrong? Stop sobbing so much and lower your voice; your father is home!"

"I can't marry him, Ma, please listen to me... Please don't make me marry him, I'll do anything you say, Ma, please don't make me marry Sayeed bhaiya!"

"Mariya, what is wrong? What happened, will you tell me or should I call him?"

"He... He does not... He does not want to have children, ma... He... He cannot have children... I cannot marry him, Ma! Please, Ma! He cannot have children, Ma... he got a vasectomy done!"

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