Shahtaj House

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Chapter 6

I was stunned. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t blink and I couldn’t fathom what Bareera had just said. Was this a good thing? Was this a bad thing? Was this even something to be thinking about? These were questions I didn’t have answers to, and I was the kind of person who always had the answers. For the first time, in forever, I was speechless.

“Your mouth’s been open too long, you’ll catch a fly,” Bareera said, nonchalantly and that seemed to snap me out of my daze, as I blinked for a few seconds recollecting my thoughts. “W-what did you say?”

“You’ll catch a fly?” she looked at me skeptically as if to see if I were still in this space and time. “No,” I shook my head, “Before that.”

“Close your mouth?”

“Ugh! No, you dimwit, before that!”

“Oh! Yeah, Haroon likes you.” She simply said like it was the most normal thing in the world.

“Why?!” I shrieked. I heard her scoff as she continued, “How the hell should I know? Ask him!”

“Ah, yes! I should ask him and make more of a fool of myself!” I huffed as I pulled the covers off and stood up. I didn’t know if I was anxious or angry, but either way, I couldn’t stop pacing the length of the room. “No, no, no,” I kept muttering as I moved back and forth. “This can’t be happening.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Bareera, you of all people should know that I don’t want this!” My arms were now flailing as I tried to emphasize and make my point clearer. “I’ve never wanted this. I won’t be able to live like that! I have dreams, ambitions! And none of them involve a man! Especially not one like Haroon!”

“What’s wrong with him?” Bareera was defending him? I couldn’t believe it! At this point, it was safe to say that I had begun to hyoerventilate. The mere fact that she even thought it was an option to even remotely like Haroon was preposterous. I was feeling like someone had replaced my best friend for one of Waliya’s husband hunting friends. “What isn’t wrong with him?” I shrieked. “He has different goals in life. He wants to stay in the same place all his life, he thinks a woman should solely raise kids! Oh, and did I mention that he’s a mama’s boy?!”

“Listen to me, Sarah!” She stood in front of me and grabbed my shoulders, shaking them lightly. “Pull yourself together, woman! Deep breaths!” I did as she had asked, and soon enough, I felt the panic subside, and my heart was beating at its normal rate. “Now,” she began, “I just told you that he likes you, it isn’t the end of the world.”

“But-”

“Shush! I’m not done yet.” I nodded. “As I was saying, it’s not the end of the world. He hasn’t asked anyone for your hand, so for now, we’re good.” I took a deep breath and nodded. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“We won’t, because it won’t come to it.”

“That’s the spirit! Live in denial, my girl!” Noticing the hint of sarcasm in her voice, I couldn’t help but cross my arms over my chest and give her an ‘are you kidding me’ look, which caused her to burst out laughing like a lunatic. Slapping her arm playfully, I glared at her. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said as her body still shook with laughter. “Now, come on, get ready and come meet everyone downstairs. That was when the events of the morning came rushing back like an avalanche, destroying everything in its wake. Noticing my change in demeanor, she said, “Sarah, ignore what Waliya said. She’s egotistical and narcissistic, you know that! And besides, you know how sisters are.”

“You’re right, I’ve dealt with her vile behaviour before, I can do it again.”

“That’s my best friend! Now hurry up, I’ll be downstairs.”

~.~

As I descended the stairs, the smell of roasted beef and chicken caught my attention. It had always been a custom to serve meat whenever an important family member visited. In some parts of the world, it is still practiced. I straightened my clothes before following the aroma into the dining room. As expected, the evening was in full swing. Dada jaan and Baba jaan sat at the two heads of the table, with the ladies on one side of the table and the boys on the other. My eyes managed to distinguish the newcomer. Azeem. I saw everyone especially my mother and Auntie Maria fawning over him.

“Nasim, poor Azeem more of the chicken curry. You must try it, dear, Nasim makes heavenly curries.” The quack simply smiled and dug in. When the occupants of the room noticed me standing at the threshold, silence blanketed the room. All conversations came to a halt as I saw Waliya give me a distasteful look while Amma gave me one of disapproval for arriving after dinner had been served. The silence was broken by Dada jan, “Ah, Sarah! Come dear, sit with me.” He said as he patted the vacant chair next to him. The old man was the kindest soul there ever lived.

It was half way through dinner that anyone else acknowledged my presence. To my luck, it was the quack. “Sarah,” he began, with unwelcome familiarity. “How have you been?”

“Good, Azeem bhai." That was the term we were all instructed to call Waliya’s husband to be as it was deemed respectful, and as my mother so bluntly put it, would not give him ideas to leave Waliya and run after Bareera or me. Mother believed that my eyes gave my whole being an appeal that sophisticated girls should not, whatever that meant. I kept my head down, focused on the beef before me. After what happened at breakfast I did not want any attention whatsoever.

“What do you do now?” The man was insistent on keeping a conversation going with me while all I wanted was for this dinner to be over as soon as possible. To be very frank, the man made me uncomfortable. He had a perverted aura about him. God knows, why Waliya trusted him enough to fall in love with him. “I’m in my last year of my bachelors in english literature.”

“My, my, that’s wonderful.”

“It would be to an illiterate quack like you,” I heard Bareera mutter under her breath beside me, which caused me to laugh, but I managed to conceal it as a cough. “Aren’t you a little too young to be in your last year? What are you twenty?” You see, in our circle of society, it was considered extremely rude to mention a woman’s age, especially a woman who wasn’t your sister or wife, and let’s just say that sister in law to be, didn’t fall in that category. However, everyone ignored his blatant rudeness, making me even more uncomfortable.

Sensing my demeanor, Haroon jumped in the conversation, “Say, Azeem, how did you and Waliya meet anyway?” I exhaled a sigh of relief as I gave Haroon a grateful nod. It wasn’t that I was uneasy talking about my age or education, I was perfectly fine. In fact, I was proud of my accomplishments at such a young age. What bothered me was men like Azeem, men who only looked at women as meer objects and scrutinised them every chance they got.

“Ah, yes, that is one fine story, don’t you think, darling?” If this had been any of her children, amma would have beaten the life force out of them for using a term of endearment for a fiance, but no, this was Azeem. He had a free pass for everything. Waliya, being the overly expressive person she had been, blushed and replied, “Yes, my dear,” crass as ever, “please, do tell. You narrate it the best.” He nodded and continued. “Well, I think it was two summers ago.” He rubbed his beard in thought.

"Two summers?" I heard Baba jaan say through gritted teeth. He may have been more open minded and liberal as compared to his peers, but he wasn’t that liberal. “Oh, dear, its perfectly normal nowadays,” amma shut him up with her infamous glares, “continue, my boy.”

“Where was I? Oh, yes! It was two summers ago, when I was down by the beach in Karachi. Hox bay, I think it was. That part is always so secluded.” He waved his hands in the air. “Anyway, I was there with a bunch of my friends when we heard shrieking from a nearby rock. We saw a group of girls not older than twenty.” He looked at Waliya as he spoke again, “one of them, however, was the most beautiful I had ever seen.”

I looked over at Baba jaan only to see his jaw clenched and the spoon in his hand bent at an unnatural angle. He had always thought of Waliya as the pious and good little angel. Little did he know, amma had allowed her to go halfway across the country with a group of friends. The sole reason being that she was the oldest, and she knew how to con mother into getting her way. I, however, lacked that particular skill, which was why I was always on the receiving end of her being. Well, almost always.

“So we were all relaxing and playing cards on the beach, when we heard a loud scream. Following the horrific sound frantically, we found that one of the girls had fallen into the hollow rocks.” He made a circle with his finger, “You see, the water erodes the rocks making them hollow and-”

“We are well aware of that fact, Azeem.” Baba Jaan snapped at him, earning yet another glare from amma which caused him to continue eating his dinner.

“So,” Azeem continued, yet again, “you could imagine my surprise when I saw that same girl in the deep end of the rock.”

“What?” Baba jaan bellowed. “This is why I don’t want the girls going alone, Salma! And you sent her halfway across the country! Alone!”

“Calm down, dear. She’s fine now. She’s not dead. See?” She said as she pointed to Waliya who had a sheepish look on her face. “Continue, my boy. Excuse the interruption.” She said as she cut a disapproving look at Baba jaan.

“Anyway, I helped her out and then took her to the hospital. I stayed with her until she got better and then dropped her at the airport. Since, then, we haven’t stopped talking. And imagine my surprise that she lived in the same city as I did. Fate sure is a funny thing.”

Baba Jaan scoffed.

“But if you ask me, I think when I saw her in the hospital, vulnerable and injured, was the point I fell in love with this beauty that is now seated across form me.” He finished, tipping his glass in Waliya’s direction, causing her to become as red as a tomato.

Baba jaan cleared his throat and stood up. He did not look happy. “Excuse me, but I have to make a business call.”

“Jamal, it’s nine pm, what call do you have to make at this hour?” My mother said, incredulously.

“I have one,” with that, he walked out of the room. “Why don’t we all move to the dining room for dessert? Bareera dear, please lead everyone to the room. I’ll be right back.”

“Yes, auntie. Follow me, Azeem bhai." I could’ve sworn she said the word like it was meant to be an insult, and when I looked at her, the sinister expression confirmed my suspicion. I was the last to leave the room as I was helping Dada jaan to the parlour. “I’ll be fine, my dove.” I chuckled at the nickname. “Go check on your parents and ask them to come back. It isn’t polite.” I nodded and went to the foyer where the couple in question were having quite the heated argument.

“I don’t care if he’s to marry her in a few days! I won’t stand him talking to her like that in front of everyone.” I heard Baba jaan exclaim.

“Oh, come on, now. He’s just loving is all.”

“A pervert is more like it! Who preys on a twenty year old girl when she’s injured?!”

“Oh, hush! Someone might hear you!”

“He has to be at least thirty, more than five years older than her!” He said, ignoring her remark. I cleared my throat and made my presence known. “Oh, Sarah, I didn’t see you there.”

“Uh, yes, well, Dada jaan wants you two to join the guests.”

Amma sighed, “Come, Jamal. The public awaits.” With that, she and my father went to the drawing room to mingle again. Deciding to go to the kitchen to get my dessert myself, I made my way to the opposite side of the foyer. “Nasim, can I get dessert, please?” However, the only person I found in the kitchen was Haroon, filling up his own bowl of dessert.

“Seconds already?” I couldn’t help but laugh a little. He turned around and said, “What can I say? I love this kheer. It’s heavenly.”

“I’ll make sure to pay the chef compliments.” I said, grabbing a bowl of my own.

“I thought you made it. Auntie said something about her girls being amazing in the kitchen.”

“She must be talking about her prized possession, Waliya. I don’t cook.”

“Oh.” He leaned against the kitchen counter. “You know, I’ve been meaning to ask something.”

“Yes?” I eyed him as I poured the kheer into my own bowl.

“It might sound rude.”

“Then I suggest you keep it to yourself.”

“But the curiosity is driving me crazy,” he laughed. I sighed, “Alright, what is it?”

“Azeem, he-”

“Don’t mention that sleezball, please.”

“Why do you hate him so much?” He laughed. “I don’t hate him. He’s just so...artificial.”

“Anyway, as I was saying, when he asked you about you being in your last year...” he trailed off. “Yes?” I saw him fidget. “Why are you in your last year at such a young age?” The question brought a smile to my face. He was curios over such a trivial piece of information. “If you must know,” I took a spoonful of my dessert. “I graduated from school early and I took extra courses in university so that I could finish it early.”

Normally when I was done narrating this little tidbit, the person in front of me would think of me as a lunatic or an arrogant person bragging about her education or even impractical for putting extra work on my self, but as I looked up at him, I saw nothing but awe and pride marring his features, and for the first time, I held an ounce of respect for the individual standing before me.

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