Till Life Do Us Part
A thick mass of black curls: unruly, unbound, floating over the water like a serpent dancing to its own beat, but the kind one aches to be bitten by. According to Hindu mythology, hair is a metaphor for power. The goddess Kali has wild, unkempt hair to represent her fury. Similarly, in the Mahabharata, Draupadi’s open locks symbolize her rage.
Even, in the olden days, Hindu women were forced to shave their heads to display devotion when their husbands died. Today, thousands of pilgrims flock to the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in India, where women buy promises from the gods, promises for their husbands’ next promotion or their sons’ 10th grade result. They pay for these measured fates by parting with any long black locks they may have. This sacrificed hair then becomes extra voluminous hair extensions for a Kim Kardashian wannabe on the other side of the world, and c’est la vie.
I was at the New Delhi airport dreaming the same recurring dream about hair that had brought me to India. Always the same dream, my daadi looking weak and frail on her bedside, combing whatever was left of her hair and offering it to me as she called out my name. Dreams have always been a strange phenomenon for me. According to my knowledge of dream-analysis, it’s usually the Jungian concept of wish fulfillment, but what kind of fantasy indulges procuring one’s grandmother’s hair, I wondered. My mother insists that when I was little, my dreams often came true… from what I recall, if they didn’t, I used to make sure they did.
In reality, I was unsure if I was even prepared to see daadi balding. It’s unnerving that the loss of her hair scared me more than the loss of her life. She was dying and here I was, her only granddaughter, obsessing about vanity.
As for my feelings about leaving home, Australia had tested me enough anyway. All my friends were either getting married or birthing babies: two vertigo inducing events of such frequency that they made me want to vomit inside my own mouth. My best friend was the most recent defector and it was the morning after her tedious wedding this trip had begun to germinate. Having grown up in a Desi household wasn’t helping matters either- I was twenty-five, a quarter of a century old, and bitter as hell.
I clearly recall her wedding vows. “Till death do us part,” said her groom, wistfully gazing at her, gleaming at the prospect of a happy future that probably included a gazillion babies. I looked around at everyone else in the church- all tears and smiles. FuckThisShit. I felt like screaming.
Later that night at the reception party, I decided to do what I do best- be a killjoy. “So, why do they say ‘Till death do us part’? Shouldn’t it be ‘Till life do us part’? Death is not the end of a relationship. It’s just the physical self that dies.”
My mother glared at me through the mirror affixed to a stupid old-fashioned feathered centerpiece.
“What do you want them to say Laila?” my father asked with a mouthful of food waiting to explode through his teeth, some bits already clinging to his moustache. I hate it when he does that. “Well, I want them to say ‘Till life do us part.’ That’s what causes people to separate. Life. Not death!”
“You remind me of your grandmother,” Mum retorted.
“Your daadi wants you to visit her,” Dad announced as soon as I got home from work the next day. “I told her about your dreams.”
“Ok,” I agreed reluctantly, having visions and flashes of my recurring dream and fearing what this trip may manifest into. In spite of that fear, I found myself oddly pulling away and yet pulling into the idea of going. “But I’ll go to India alone.” I had never travelled on my own. Yep- overprotective Indian parents and all. I was clear that I didn’t want anyone to accompany me and that they could join me later if they wanted. Of course they didn’t agree, but when they realized my childish resolve couldn’t be shaken, they eventually caved in.
“Your grandmother will haunt me in my own dreams if I don’t let you go,” Mother said defensively.
My daadi was quite a character. Strong, bold and courageous for her time, she had brought up my dad single-handedly. I don’t know much about my grandfather because no one in the family spoke about him. I think it was the whole Hindu-Muslim fiasco, which was more than just frowned upon in those days: one of those shameful family secrets that people hide like their life depends on it. What little I did know was that he died in Pakistan during Partition, while daadi made it to India and subsequently discovered that she was pregnant with my father.
She was also a scholar and a great storyteller. Her love for literature, poetry, art and Urdu was second to none. Apparently, when I was born, she was the one who had insisted on calling me ‘Laila’ after the Arabic folklore of Layla Majnun ( Layla and the Madman), the star-crossed lovers also known as Leyla ile Mecnun in Turkish, with Mecnun symbolizing possession or “Giraft E Ishq,” as daadi would call it.
My mother hated the name because it sounded Muslim. “Why does a Hindu girl have a Muslim name?” But my father relented and thus I became Laila- modern-day desi Laila, born and bred in Australia, who hated everything, from the stupid story behind her own name to those who cry while watching The Notebook.
This hatred had detached me from my everyday life. Even sitting at this airport, jet lagged and exhausted, was way more exciting than my life back in Australia. When you first arrive in India, you begin to realize that you were born with five senses that can work simultaneously. Your brain goes into overdrive, as myriad smells, sounds, touches, sights and tastes hit you in the face, all at once. I was trying to not lose myself in these new surroundings, while also trying to not lose my balance as a little boy in tattered clothes kept pulling at my dress, shouting “Dollaz!”
I eventually saw a man running towards me, waving his hand incessantly. Still panting, he shooed the child off with a rupee and in between catching his breath said, “Layla or Laila?”
“Laila, unfortunately,” I managed a smile. “Layla does sound better though.”
“I am so sorry, Laila. I’m late. It’s been pouring in this city. The water kept me.”
“Water,” I repeated as drops of rain ran down his throat. His Adam’s apple moved with such vigor as he spoke that his neck could have a name, a personality and a life of its own. His own name was Qais. I laughed at daadi’s choice of the guy who should pick me up: Qais was another name for Majnun. Apt, eh? He explained that we’d be taking a train to Srinagar and then a bus to where daadi lived now. Besides that chiseled neck, he looked like a complete nerd. Horn-rimmed black glasses, overgrown stubble, kurta-pyjama creased on account of housing an uncountable number of cigarette packets in the pockets. Apparently, he was the neighbor’s son, doing his Master’s in Political Science and working on a thesis meant to thwart the militant ambitions of young Kashmiri boys.
During the journey, I almost immediately realized that he wasn’t my type at all. But I couldn’t help but be stirred by his passion for a reformed world. I’ve always been fascinated by people with a mission larger than their own mundane lives. Not necessarily ambition, but something that moves them, something all consuming, something strong and powerful that flows through their veins and drips from the tip of their tongue. Qais was like that. Not striking to look at in the least, but he had the power of oration that could hold me captive for years.
We arrived in Srinagar the next morning and daadi, expectedly, looked unwell. Exactly how I had seen her in my dreams. There was a sense of resigned acceptance in me that comes when you make peace with finality. The most unsettling thing about seeing her sitting on that bed, combing her hair, was that it immediately reminded me of how uncannily similar she had looked in my dream. Her hair seemed to have lost the luster, seeing her comb it through was like seeing dying embers in a furnace, although it still reminded you of the fire that was once there. I had always been curious to ask her about my grandfather and as I sat next to her, I abruptly blurted, “So, didn’t you ever want to remarry?” while she combed the last few strands that remained. “I wanted to die when I arrived here. I could have been reunited with your grandfather. It was life that kept us apart. Your dad was born. A life was born.”
After a pause, she continued, “By the way, did you like Qais? Have you felt the Hub?”
According to Arabic literature, Sufi love goes through seven stages: Hub (Attraction), being the first phase, followed by Uns (Infatuation), Ishq (Love), Aqeedat (Reverence), Ibaadat (Worship), Junoon (Obsession) and finally culminating in Maut (Death). Hub or not, Qais visited us every day and sat by daadi’s bedside while she narrated fables of magic and supernatural eternal love. She described the grandiosity of death with such yearning in her eyes that I wondered how often she wished to die. It was her seventh stage of love, perhaps, submission in its most sublime form.
Strangely, during the course of the next couple of months, I began to feel an inexplicable yet undeniable attraction towards Qais. Desire is a strange thing. It hits you like a tidal wave. The waters are calm until they begin to rage. I was careful not to touch him, fearing that I may wind up wanting him too much. But, as it turned out the attraction was mutual and that was that. I finally caved in and kissed him so hard that if you were to peel his Adam’s apple you’d find my seeds in it. I had finally found my object of affection, the kind that forces passion to run through your veins and drip from the tip of your tongue. I turned morosely romantic; I’d even smoke his cigarette butts every night after he left. I craved his neck like an addict. OnceMoreLastTimeI’llQuitOnceMoreLasttimePlease.
Qais, on the other hand, was more practical in matters of love and life. He really was no Majnun, but I seemed to have lost all sense of rationality. He was the one who understood that logistically, it couldn’t work between us. We were from two very far and very different places. That wasn’t an issue for me at all. In fact, I had started seeing him all the time… even when he wasn’t around. When someone sees Majnun sifting through the earth like a madman and asks if he hopes to find Laila there, he says, “I look for her everywhere, in the hope of finding her somewhere.” I had become that Majnun, as my grandmother lay ailing, losing more hair by the day.
She eventually turned completely bald, ready to die. I couldn’t bear to see her like that. I called mum and dad and told them that she didn’t have much longer. We’d be lucky if she lasted a few days. The same night, Qais didn’t show up and although my heart wanted to leap outside of my chest and go looking for him through the streets like a starving lion, prowling for prey, I decided to stay with daadi instead, through what I felt could be her last night. She was humming a peculiar tune in the midst of heavy breathing, while the rest of her lay almost paralyzed. But she didn’t rest or sleep- she couldn’t with the pain. With considerable effort, she pointed towards her bedside table and I opened the drawer. In it: a box full of her jet-black hair. “Float them on the Jhelum River when I die,” she said. “Not my ashes… my hair.”
She passed away the next morning and my parents arrived immediately after. Qais helped with the Antim Sanskaar while I remained on auto-mode, acting like nothing had happened. My emotions in such situations are often misplaced. It’s like my brain refuses to accept what has happened and goes numb. While daadi’s hairless dead body was bathed and wrapped in a white cloth and taken away to the Shamshaan Ghaat, I thought of things that one isn’t supposed to think of at a funeral. My brain was a whore. It was ruled by nothing but desire, satiety being an unknown emotion to me. WhatshallIIwearwhenImarryQais?Whatkindoflingerie?Howmanyguestsatthewedding?HereOrAustralia? IWantToKissHimAtThisFuneral.HimHimHim.
A few days after daadi died, my mother insisted that we return to Australia. When I broke the news to Qais, he said he hoped to visit me someday. Hope is such a weak word that at times I am unsure if it should be a word at all. I hated him for his nonchalance but I wanted to make my last few days with him count. I think he was one of those people who fear being loved too much or with such a piercing level of devotion. It was perhaps overbearing for him, but when I flow, I gush. Besides, I had a dream about how we could be together, and I took it as a sign that it was meant to be. At the same time, daadi had started appearing in my dreams again too, frail and weak, seated by her bedside and combing her hair as she called out my name.
The night before I was to return to Australia, I insisted that Qais and I drive up to the Jhelum to fulfill daadi’s last wish. He consented and we began to drive as the sun set into dusk. I came alive in the dark. Even etymologically speaking, the name Laila comes from the Hebrew and Arabic words for night and translates to “one who works by night,” bringing us back to the hidden alliance between Laila and Majnun, wherein the darkness kept their lustful secrets.
Qais was quiet, and it irked me. This could have possibly been our last time together and he remained unperturbed by that finality, as if, he too, had made peace with it. To break this silence, I asked “Do you know how to swim?” because in spite of growing up near a fresh water lake, I had always been scared of water and had never learnt how to.
“Not very well but I can manage. Why don’t you drive over the bridge and you can lower the box into the river over the railing,” he suggested, as his luscious Adam’s apple drummed his windpipe. SmallTalkSmallTalkThisIsSoAnnoyingWhyIsHeNotProfessingHisUndyigLoveForMeWhereIsThePromiseThatHeWillComeToAustraliaToMeetMe, my brain whored.
This was it. The next morning, I would be 10,136 kilometers away from him, I thought as I drove up to the bridge. 10,136 kilometers I whispered into Qais’ ear as I leaned closer to him, touching his neck with one hand, the other steadily glued to the steering. His nonchalance was still feeding my hate. Before he could even respond to my touch, in the glimpse of a moment, with a sharp sound of wheezing brakes, our car steered through the railing and into the river. Laila, her Majnun and daadi’s hair… all drowning.
I didn’t even try to stay afloat. But the last image I have of Qais was him struggling to come up, as his eyes widened and his hands flapped around frantically in the current. In the midst of that struggle, everything was a haze but his neck still looked glorious, like it could survive on its own. Even the moon seemed to gaze at it for the longest while, shining light on it. It was only a matter of time until daadi’s thick black tresses began to do what I had hoped for. Her hair looped around his Adam’s apple, again and again, come alive in their reincarnation as the dancing serpent, and choking the very breath that he ached for.
I drowned. Happily. Smiling. Smug. I was glad I had made the accident look so swift that even my lover couldn’t tell it was my doing. My heart was a whore. Satiety was an unknown emotion to me. I didn’t want life to do us part.
And I made sure it didn’t.