An Unwilling Bride
Hooria eyed the luxurious red lehenga that lay draped on the chaise lounge with disdain. The elaborate design done in threads of gold and silver did nothing to inspire any awe in her-nor did the opulence of the bridal room in which she currently stood, swathed in a fluffy white robe, her fingers dipped in henna which had turned a colour darker than the desirable deep red-to appear almost black. A fitting omen, she thought, for what was about to come.
“Come on, Hooria,” Tanya, her elder sister beckoned impatiently, “We need to get started on your hair, we’re already late. The Baraat will be here in an hour or so, you know how Dadi gets when things aren’t done on time.”
Hooria sighed, as she turned toward where her sister stood with the hairstylist. Padding across the room, her bare feet sinking into the plush carpet, she took a seat in front of the age-old vanity, whose mahogany surface was still smooth and gleamed under the warm glow of the Italian neoclassical lamps that had burned bright since the 1920s when the haveli was first constructed.
Gazing at her forlorn-and admittedly pathetic reflection in the long oval mirror, she wondered how many women before her had to sit through the same inane ritual. In the past twenty-four hours, she'd been waxed, scrubbed, and polished within an inch of her life. She’d been poked and prodded until she’d almost cried with frustration. However, now as she looked at herself, she had to admit that the effort was worth it. Her brown eyes looked bigger-the the thick smoky eyeliner and false lashes creating an illusion of guileless seduction. Her lips were painted a deep glistening tone-plump and enticing and her skin was a flawless canvas that seemed to flush with virginal modesty-another illusion crafted by the hand of the skilled makeup artist.
The vision in the mirror looked beautiful.
She hated it. She felt like cattle; fattened up and decorated before sacrifice. The elegant clothes-the the ornate jewelry were all part of a grand charade, and she was the lead actress.
Tanya thrust her long fingers in her hair, pulling the long brown locks up, twisted them around her head, instructing the hairstylist on the vision, she had for her baby sister’s big day. Hooria let her have her fun. She didn’t need to make her sister as miserable as herself.
The next half hour was spent under the hot whir of the hairdryer and the pricking of dozens of bobby pins as her hair was pulled back into an artful bun, and then decorated with Motia. Together the stylist and Tanya carefully lowered the jewel-encrusted necklace down her neck-taking great pains to not mess up her hair. The deep rubies and emeralds glimmered enticingly and made her skin glow-almost incandescent as if kissed by some divine luminosity.
Tanya reached for the red velvet case that housed the matha patii, when Hooria jolted from her dazed state, “No,” She rasped, “I’m going to wear Amma’s tika and jhoomar.”
Tanya looked at her bewildered before her eyes softened and a familiar kindred sadness glistened in them. She shook her head, "You know that isn't possible Hooria. Dadi will throw a fit and Abba will- “
“I don’t care what they say,” Hooria cut her off her eyes blazing with mutinous fury, “If I’m being wedded off to a virtual stranger, as part of some archaic barbaric customs, the least they can do is let me wear my mother’s jewelry.”
Tanya cut the stylist a look, “Can you excuse us for a moment?” The stylist nodded as she set down the bobby pins on the table and scuttered out of the room.
Tanya put a consoling hand on her younger sister’s shoulder, as she bent down to gently kiss the top of her head, “Hoor,” She said softly, using the nickname she had given her as children, “I know that this isn’t what you wanted, but throwing tantrums won’t make the problem go away. You agreed to this-albeit unwillingly. Short of running away there is nothing else that you can do. So please, don't sour your day. It's your wedding-one of the biggest days of your life. Don't squander it being miserable."
Hooria’s mouth twisted into a mirthless grin, “You’re wrong. I never agreed to this,” Her hands curled into fists clenching the folds of the white robe fiercely. “And this isn’t my wedding. It’s a repayment of debt. Please don’t make it sound like more than what it is.”
“Then why did you accept?” Tanya challenged, “You could have run away, Hooria. Ammar and I would have helped you. Why did you stay?”
“Because I couldn’t bear to have Amma’s name dragged through the mud once again,” Hooria whispered, her voice cracking, as her throat choked with the emotion that had roiled inside her for days.
Blinking back the tears that threatened to fall she met her sister’s agonized gaze, “I did what I had to do to protect my mother’s honour. Just like you did. If I had run away, it would have been another mark against Amma. Dadi would have blamed everything on her “bad blood”,” She said bitterly.
Tanya squeezed her sister’s shoulder, her eyes glistening with tears, “When did you grow up, Hoor?” She whispered.
Hooria gave a saccharine smile, “The day you left me to deal with that old bat alone.”
A hoarse laugh broke out from Tanya’s lips, as she swept a tender gaze over her sister, “Look at the bright side. Forced marriage or not, at least you won’t have to deal with Dadi again.”
Hooria laughed genuinely for the first time in days. “That’s the only thing I have going for me.”
“You know, an arranged marriage isn’t really all that bad. It worked out for me.” Tanya said as she smoothed the flyaways from Hooria’s bun with light nimble fingers. “And who knows, maybe Asfandyar would turn out to be the man of your dreams.” She teased.
“Dreams are for fools, Tanya.” Hooria dismissed her as she got up and walked to the wide cupboard in the room, wrenching the door open she fumbled inside, searching underneath the neatly stacked pile of clothes and drawers.
She never believed in happily ever after, nor did she believe in love-at least, not for herself. Her sister may have found love, but Hooria had always been the unlucky one. Out of the three siblings, she was the one who took after their mother the most-a a spitting image of her youth. She was the only one who had inherited her mother’s dark brown eyes-her brother and sister taking after their father’s light brown ones. She had her height- the same willowy structure, the same pointed chin.
She couldn’t help but wonder if she’d inherited her mother’s luck in love as well. She’d missed out on a lot-her mother’s love, her father’s attention. By the time she’d come around, their family was already hurtling towards destruction.
Besides, Tanya’s circumstances were far different from hers.
Shaking off the morose, self-pitying thoughts she dug deeper for the old box she’d stuffed underneath her clothes. Her fingers brushed against velvet and she smiled as she pulled the weathered box out-the velvet exterior fraying at the edges, lint covering the entire surface of the black box.
Hooria swept a hand over the surface as she felt a keeling sadness spike the chest-a longing she hadn't felt this keenly for a long time. Holding the box almost irreverently, she gave her sister a watery smile, "So, what say you and I make the old bat go crazy one last time?"
Tanya shook her head in mock exasperation, as she motioned for her to sit down again.
An hour later Hooria sat on the settee relishing the brief reprieve and partial silence as she listened to the crunch of gravel as cars pulled into the drive. There were no musicians; no drummers or trumpeters to welcome the groom and his family. The message was clear, this wasn’t a celebration.
Hooria could feel her heart thumping a higher crescendo with each passing moment. Anytime now the door would open, and she’d sign away the rest of her life.
Stupid, stupid Hooria, she thought to herself angrily, why did you have to play the martyr here? Because honour be damned she was scared shitless now that the moment of reckoning had arrived, and the truth of her reality dawned on her.
Unconsciously, she rubbed at the lonesome pearl on her ring finger; a relic from her mother’s life here-one of the last to remain after she was gone. She’d smuggled it an act of desperate defiance, as a child when her grandmother had tried her best to remove all traces of her mother’s existence in their lives.
It was the first gift her father had given her mother, a simple white pearl snuggled in a bed of silver. It had never left her mother’s finger as long as she was here. And the only thing-apart from her mother’s wedding jewelry, Hooria could think of to salvage- this simple token of devotion, in the carnage her mother had left behind.
The door groaned and her grandmother walked in, the atmosphere in the room plummeting as she leveled Hooria with her infamous, frigid reptile-like stare.
Rehana Begum was bordering on seventy, yet she cut a striking vision-tall and erect with only a smattering of wrinkles and lines on her face to account for her age. Her hair, long thick and still black was pulled back from severely from her face and hung in a braid down the length of her spine. her cheeks were still full and ruddy, and her light brown eyes held a shrewdness that had secured her position as the indomitable mistress of the house for most of her life.
Hooria shifted in her seat trying to appear unperturbed, even as she felt her chest grow tight, her lungs straining with the effort to draw in more air but restricted by the tightness of her blouse and now the cloying presence of her grandmother.
As a rule, all three siblings scrupulously avoided being in her presence alone, always herding together whenever they were summoned. However, as of late with Tanya married and Ammar out of the country most of the time for work, Hooria had unfortunately found herself subjugated to more and more of these private sessions.
For Hooria the term “Dadi” had always invoked images of dark foreboding stoicism and a cold unyielding reserve akin to that of a military leader. Orders were made and expected to be obeyed and punishments were meted out if they were not.
She couldn’t recall a single instance of Rehana smiling or a moment of grandmotherly affection and as she drew nearer, she felt her scalp prickle in reminiscence of a particularly dark childhood memory.
Her mother had just left, and as the days passed with no sign of her returning, with her father aloof and withdrawn-she’d sought attention through rebellion; refusing to tie up her long locks, letting her hair run wild and free.
She still remembered the fear in Romaisa’s-her nanny’s eyes as she reluctantly handed over a pair of scissors into her grandmother’s outstretched hand. And Rehana, in one swift motion had gathered up her hair in a fist and chopped it close to the scalp. She had been too stunned to cry then, as she watched her sheared locks being swept off the floor. However, later she had bawled in Tanya’s neck as Ammar paced the room flushed with indignant fury.
They had been helpless in the face of her power over them as children-and still as adults.
Lost in memories of the past, she startled as long thin fingers wrapped around her chin, lifting her face to meet the same unnervingly passionless gaze that haunted her childhood memories. Light brown eyes roamed over her face, narrowing imperceptibly at the sight of her mother’s jewelry strung in her hair.
Hooria stared back mutinously despite the stinging fear that crowed at her to capitulate. An endless moment passed, when finally, a sneer cracked Rehana’s stony façade.
“You were always the most like your mother. Irreverent, reckless and entirely too stubborn for your own good,” She jeered as her fingers tightened around her chin almost painfully. “You have her beauty too; wild, noxious and filthy,” She spit the words out.
“I tried so hard to rid you of her corruptness, but you’ve always held on to it so dearly. Alas I could only do so much, somethings are inherited.”
Hooria felt her throat constricting and anger-dark and insidious boil within her. She felt her expression harden, the affected deference slipping as she glared at the woman. Tanya was right-the the marriage, no matter how unwanted granted her an escape from this woman and the toxicity of her house- the thought was unbelievably freeing.
Rehana released her face as she turned away, her peach chiffon dupatta fluttering behind her. “I know what you meant by wearing those jewels. You wanted to make me angry, but darling, these were always meant to be yours,” She cackled, “That’s why I kept them all these years. I thought it fitting-the daughter adorned in her mother’s jewels, atoning for her sins, bearing the burden of the legacy she left behind.”
“Why did you come?” Hooria asked, hoarsely, wanting her to go away.
Rehana turned her, “I know how willful you can be. And I know that you may try to seek a divorce from Asfandyar. But remember Hooria, your actions will have severe implications on our family’s reputation. Your mother once destroyed our honour, it is now up to you to restore it. If you seek divorce-or run away, I will disown you and forbid Tanya and Ammar from seeing you again, and don’t think I can’t-I have all the power here. They’ll support you as long as their pockets are full, but once I tighten my purse strings, they’ll fall back in line. So, think very carefully before you do anything brash. And think about it this way,” Rehana crooned, “This is your one chance to redeem your mother’s name, repay the debt that rests on her shoulders.”
Hooria stood up, the rustle of gemmed skirts the only sound in the room as she appraised Rehana coldly, "You don’t have to worry. I won’t give you another chance to ridicule my mother. This is my last night in your house and your last free pass, if you ever, in my presence utter another word against my mother, I will not tolerate it.”
Rehana came closer, lifting a hand she touched the Tika dangling in Hooria’s forehead, adjusting it slightly, as Hooria barely stopped herself from flinching away, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Hooria.” She said quietly-almost sincerely, “You need to be especially careful. Because disloyalty is in your blood.”
With that she turned away, leaving Hooria with a sick twisted feeling in her gut.
What if what she said was true?