Entering the grand drawing room, I saw everyone immersed in joyful chatter. They were all here today, which was a rarity considering Baba Jaan usually had work to do at the office, and my siblings and cousins were more interested in going out and having a good time rather than spending time with the family. It was usually just Dada Jaan and his daughter in laws, my mother and Bareera’s mother.
Dada jaan was sitting near the window, the light of the setting sun casting a heavenly glow on his aged countenance. He would be turning eighty this year, which was an achievement in itself. Despite his age, his wit and charm were very much intact, and he was as humorous as he was in his prime. He did grow forlorn some days, when he missed Dadi Jaan. She was the love of his life and most importantly, his best friend. In an age when men oppressed women with their misogynistic attitude, Dada jaan had always treated his wife as an equal, a friend and an advisor. He had taught his sons to do the same. Our family, the Aghas, because of him, were known to be quite liberal and open minded, but the desi mindset did rear its head on certain occasions, such as this one right here.
Auntie Maria was engaged in a conversation with Haroon and my mother, asking him what his plans were for marriage. I fought the urge to roll my eyes at the horrid subject of discussion as I made my way through the room to take a seat on the single seater to Dada Jaan’s right, while Bareera was on his left. It was safe to say that we were his favourite grandchildren out of the lot.
“So, Haroon, now that you’re back, do you intend to stay?” Aunt Maria asked.
“For the time being, yes, Auntie. I haven’t decided anything solid yet.” He replied as he sipped on his cup of tea. The man was twenty three but acted like he was a fifty year old man. He always believed in sophistication and being proper, which earned him the highest spot in our mothers’ good graces. They had always said that he was the most well behaved boy they had ever met. I bad never heard of a more biased opinion.
“So,” my mother began, “what do you intend to do now?”
“Oh, here we go again,” I heard Bareera mutter under her breath, but both Dada jaan and I heard her. I couldn’t help but snicker, but Dada Jaan burst out into full blown laughter causing everyone in the room to look at us. “Agha sahib? Is everything alright?” Asked Aunt Maria. “Oh, yes, yes.” He replied, “the girls and I were just chatting the bit is all, continue.” We all knew where the conversation was headed. The ladies would ask about what kind of a career he planned to pursue, which would lead to the topic of marriage and kids which would eventually lead one of our mothers to present one of their children to him as an option. The whole ordeal was utterly mortifying, to be honest.
“Dada jaan!” Bareera hissed. He laughed and said, “I’m sorry my child but you are just too funny.” This caused a smile to grace her features as we all focused on the scene before us. We were well versed in it, but still enjoyed the poor target’s reaction when the ladies would hound him for marriage at such a young age.
“What are your plans now, Haroon?” My mother asked, again.
“Well, Auntie, I was planning on taking a gap year, and then starting a stable job.” He said proudly. “Oh, good good!” She exclaimed, and I could bet my entire life on the fact that she had no idea what he had studied in university, nor did she know about his career path. Which was most likely to be her next question. As predicted, she said, “Sorry to be rude, my dear, but what is it that you plan on doing?” He laughed in response, most likely anticipating the same question. “You could never be rude, my dear aunt. To answer your question, I plan on becoming an interior designer. I studied interior designing and architecture in the US.”
“Oh,” she said, clearly not pleased.
“Isn’t that a woman’s job, though?” Aunt Maria put her two cents in. “I’m sorry?” Haroon looked positively embarrassed. “A woman’s job,” she repeated the words that had caused his embarrassment, “taking care of the house, and making it beautiful, that is.”
“Aunt Maria, a woman’s job is solely to look after and raise her children to the best of her abilities, decorating the house is not her responsibility.”
“I, for one, think that even child rearing isn’t solely a woman’s duty. It is a responsibility meant to be shared,” I butt in. I couldn’t help myself any longer. The conversation was becoming too misogynistic and sexist for my liking. However, the consequences of my actions were not pleasant. “Sarah!” My father exclaimed. He had finally put down his newspaper, and that just in time to hear my defiant comment. “Never speak when elders are talking, do you understand?” He said though gritted teeth.
“But, Baba jaan, they-”
“No buts! Do as your told!” With that, he resumed his paper leaving me to be embarrassed in front of my entire family and the newcomer. I bad no choice but to cast my eyes down and I focused on the floor, when I felt as arm pull me into a hug. It was my dear Dada Jaan. The poor man was always there to comfort me. Even when I was naughty as a child, and was thrashed by Amma or Baba Jaan, he would be right outside my door ready to console me or take me to get some ice cream. He was my hero. “It’s alright, beta. If it’s any consolation, I agree with you.” I couldn’t help but smile at him. He truly was a wonderful soul, inside and out.
For the remainder of the evening, I thought it best to stay mum. The conversation continued and just as I had predicted, it always swerved back to the topic of marriage. “When do you plan on taking a wife, Haroon?” Had it not been happening before me, I would’ve assumed someone was retelling a Jane Austen novel. But no, it was unfolding in front of my eyes like a play. Our mothers’ desperation for marriage and all things related. “Not anytime soon, I hope,” he said, chuckling. Both of them laughed a somewhat pretentious laugh that was obvious as day. “But, surely you must want to, someday? Marriage is an important milestone in life.” That is where my mother and I always contradicted. While she was of the notion that matrimony was as essential as a baby’s first steps, I was of the opinion that it was nothing more than a luxury only those could afford who had nothing better to do in life than pine for some stranger miles away. I was extremely grateful when Dada Jaan spoke, noticing Haroon’s discomfort, “Speaking of marriage, Salma,” he addressed my mother, “where is our bride to be?”
“Oh, Waliya? She’s out jewelry shopping with with a friend of hers,” she replied, which was when Baba jaan made his displeasure known, his face still hidden behind the curtain of the daily paper, “I thought I told her not to go out with her friends. You never know what kind of people they are.”
“Oh, come now, dear. She’s getting married in a month, I think she deserves a little freedom.” Baba jaan didn’t like what she had to say but kept quiet nonetheless. “Oh, Haroon! Did I tell you who my Waliya is getting married to?” Mother would never give up on a chance to boast about her soon to be son in law. She admired him like a true fan. Whenever he would come to visit, she would weigh him on hand and foot. That reminds me, I believe she said something about him coming next week or so. “He is a doctor! A world renounced surgeon, at that!”
While my mother harped on her son in law’s attributes and accomplishments to whomever would listen, it didn’t change the fact that the man was a mere quack who lived in the walled city. He had a small one bedroom apartment above his tiny shop, where he sold herbs and steroids that did more harm than good. He was no match for our Waliya, my eldest sister who was the epitome of beauty in our family. Rumor has it, that when she was but fifteen, every woman in the family had asked Amma to bestow them with her as a daughter in law, but even amma knew how pretty she was and in her arrogance, she refused proposal after proposal, when one day, at the age of twenty one, Waliya came back from a university trip and announced that she had found a suitable suitor for herself. It was comical, really, how Baba jaan exploded in anger while amma sat in a corner of the room, weeping and cursing her stars.
Waliya being as headstrong and eccentric as she was, threatened to kill herself, even attempted to do so once. Obviously, watching too many films had convinced her she could pull it off, but her complete and utter intolerance to even the slightest pain had put a pin in her plans. Though useless and comical, the incident paved the way to what her heart desired. Amma and Baba unwillingly gave in, and not long after, the unworthy quack sent his parents with a proposal. Thus, sealing the family’s fate to forever lie and fabricate his credentials for the sole purpose of keeping up appearances.
“Oh, do come next weekend, Haroon. Azeem will be visiting us with his family then,” mother said, Azeem being the quack in question.
“Uh, I’m not sure if I can, Aunt Salma, but I will surely try,” he responded making amma very happy. It was then, that we all heard Waliya’s shrill voice fill the foyer.
“Hello! I’m home!” she drawled, sounding absolutely giddy with joy. And why shouldn’t she be? She had always been one of those girls who constantly dreamt of marriage and children. In short, she was a sickening person to be around. “Nasreen, be a doll and tell her we’re all inthe drawing room,” my other said, addressing our housekeeper, who nodded and obediently left to carry out the given task. Not long after, Nasreen entered followed by a stunning as always Waliya. Her sunglasses were perched on her head and her black hair was shining like they were smeared in oil, but that was just her natural beauty. Yes, I had a unique eye colour, but by everyone’s standards, Waliya was the belle of our family.
“There’s the apple of my eye!” Amma exclaimed causing everyone to look at her. “You’re back! Tell me,” Aunt Maria said, “what did you buy?”
“Oh, auntie, nothing much, I-” she was interrupted as my younger brother, Ali exclaimed, entering the room, with Bareera’s brother. “Is that Waliya I hear?” he asked dramatically. My brother had always loved Waliya and she, him. “Hey there, trouble maker!” she went to give him a hug. “When did you come back from school?” Ali and Rehan, Bareera’s brother, both attended the most prestigious boarding school in the country, Hassanabdal. That school was famous for making the top notch scholars the world had been blessed with, and when the two little men of our family were accepted there, Baba Jaan specifically asked that sweet be distributed to every house in the city. He had been at school since January and was now, apparently, back.
“The school year ended last week, which is why Rehan and I decided to come back as soon as we could. Besides, we’ll be graduating after the result is announced next month.”
“That’s very good,” Haroon made his presence known. “Oh, Haroon!” my brother said, “Long time no see! How are you?”
“I’m good, my man! How have you been? Congratulations on finally being eighteen. You’re a man now!”
Just like that, the conversation flowed into the wee hours of the night, until Dada jaan began to doze off, which was when we were all instructed to retire to our rooms, and Haroon was shown to one of the guest rooms.