Ayat stood in the kitchen, rolling out a neat, round roti. It was almost dinnertime and she knew that Muqtadil would be home soon. She had been busy cooking and cleaning all day, just as her husband would have liked. The kitchen had been scrubbed fastidiously until it gleamed; no offending smudge of flour or oil remained. Everything was in order. Even the boys, despite their boisterous resistance, had been bathed. Now, lying quietly in front of the television, their gazes fixed at the cartoons playing on the screen, they looked as clean and disciplined as the rest of the house.
Ayat heard a low hum through the kitchen window. It was the automatic front gates of the house opening to signal Muqtadil’s arrival. She bit her lips, already blistered by compulsive chewing, then took off her apron and reached up to hang it behind the kitchen door.
“Boys, Baba’s home,” she called out in a thinly veiled warning. Walking toward the main door, she glanced momentarily at the colorful stained glass window above the entrance. The pointed pattern etched on the window showed a delicate woman raising two oblong palms at the sun. It shimmered in the golden light of evening, casting a beatific shadow on Ayat as she hurried toward the cobbled driveway.
“Assalaaaaammmm!” she smiled the smile of an angel, holding her arms wide open to receive the burly man who was reaching for his briefcase on the backseat of the Pajero. “How are you Baba? How was work? Here let me take that briefcase. Kia baat hai, boss.Looking so handsome in that suit.”
Muqtadil smiled in return and nodded pleasantly, allowing the briefcase to be taken from his hands.
“How are you, Mama? Where are the boys?”
“Oh they are watching cartoons inside like obedient boys, Baba. I told them not to upset you, like they did yesterday.”
Muqtadil’s lips thinned and his smile turned into a frown of disapproval.
“Who said I was upset with them?”
Ayat stiffened as she put the briefcase in the study. She turned and looked at her husband standing in the hallway.
“Oh you said you had a headache and you didn’t like…”
“Just because I said I had a headache yesterday doesn’t mean I was upset with them.”
“Arey, boss. Why are you getting so angry? I just told them to sit and wait for you until you stepped inside,” Ayat said, sliding her arm around Muqtadil’s waist to placate him. “They’re in the T.V. room. We can go and see them together.”
“It might be a custom in your family that elders greet their youngsters, but not in mine. Get them over here and make them say Salaam to their father like normal boys do.”
Muqtadil shrugged the jacket off his shoulders and looked at her expectantly, his face unreadable.
“Haroon? Faiz? Baba’s home! Come and say Salaam to him, darlings,” Ayat called obediently, her saccharine voice dripping with anxiety.
The boys did not appear.
Yesterday, Muqtadil had flown into a rage when they had run and hugged him in the driveway. He had lectured Ayat on the necessity of disciplining the future generation before shoving the children away roughly. He had spent the entire evening locked in his bedroom. The boys had heard their mother knock and sob silently at the door for two hours, apologizing until their father let her in.
This morning, while taking them to school, Ayat had told them to sit politely in the lounge and wait for Muqtadil to greet them. As soon as they had heard their Baba was home, they had seated themselves on the sofa, and had decided to stay there until he came to greet them, just as Mama had told them. They weren’t going to disobey her. They didn’t want her to cry again.
“Haroon! Faiz! Come here, janeez, Baba’s home,” called Ayat, wringing her hands.
She looked back at Muqtadil, who merely tapped his foot and looked at Ayat impatiently, but didn’t lose his temper. Ayat headed for the lounge to call the boys.
She froze in her tracks.
“As I said yesterday,” Muqtadil continued. “Just because you are able to give birth to boys doesn’t mean you can control them. Go back to the kitchen and prepare dinner. I’ll tell the boys how a father is to be greeted. What are you looking at me like that for? Go on!”
Ayat obeyed. She knew from experience that if she protested too much Muqtadil would take his anger out on the boys. She didn’t want them to be beaten; not anymore. Faiz was already having problems at school – he’d begun to fail at math. Haroon, the younger one, who was more indulged by his father, was getting violent himself. Just yesterday his teacher had called Ayat and complained that he had slapped a girl in his class.
No. A scolding would be better than a thrashing.
Ayat put the apron on as she listened to her husband scold his sons. She tied the knot gingerly, wincing as her little finger touched her back – its fingernail had become infected again. She held it away from the apron and used the other fingers to fumble up a knot. Her brother Ahmed, who was a doctor, insisted she should let him take her to the hospital to have it treated, but she had refused. Only Muqtadil would take her. As it was, he resented any interference from her family. Even though it was his family too: They were first cousins. But after the Nikah, he had grown distant from her parents and siblings. He had also grown distant from her. The wonderful man who had showered her with gifts and called her “Meethi” had withdrawn from her.
It was futile to think of that though. She would only think of the roti she was rolling out, carefully rounding it to make it a perfect circle. She took a sieve and placed it on the roti, to check for irregular edges. Practice made perfect; it was flawless.
“When your father enters the room, you stand UP!” Muqtadil’s voice boomed from the other room.
Ayat blocked it out. She focused all her energy on setting the dinner table. Muqtadil insisted that she serve meat, vegetables and lentils with rice and roti every night so he would have plenty to choose from. Today, there was keraila qeema, chicken karhai, daal, and kheer, all freshly cooked. Ayat – a model of meticulousness – laid everything out in clean bowls, wiping their sides with a paper towel to remove smears. Muqtadil hated smears.
Dinner was a silent affair, but far more pleasant than the previous night. She was jubilant when Muqtadil praised the keraila qeema.
“Thank you, Baba,” she gushed, her eyes lighting up. “But it’s not as good as when you make it. Boys, do you know that your father is an excellent cook? He taught me how to make this dish.”
Muqtadil bowed his head and accepted this adulation like a bored monarch.
“In fact, you know my mother-in-law, your Dadi, was the best cook of all. She taught me all I know. Uff, Muqtadil, do you remember when I made those koftay and they were hard as rocks? How embarrassing was that. But Amma Jan made sure I stayed in the kitchen and cooked them all over again so I would never make those mistakes again. Wasn’t that funny, Muqtadil?”
“Pass the daal,” came the laconic response.
“Oh here you go, boss. Faiz, don’t spill please. You know Baba doesn’t like it when you are careless at the dinner table.”
Dinner was routinely followed by green tea. The boys sat next to their father on the sofa, watching television. Ayat carried the heavy wooden tray her mother-in-law had given her, and placed it on the coffee table. She stirred, her little finger pointing tenderly away from the steam of the tea. Muqtadil noticed the swelling.
“Why is your fingernail black?”
Ayat almost hid her hand behind her back, but then stopped herself.
“Oh this, Baba,” She extended her hand so that Muqtadil could see. “I had wanted to ask you to take me to the doctor’s. I was talking to Ahmed and he said it should be drained. So I thought you might take me on the weekend, when you are off from work.”
“Acha, so Ahmed knew about this.”
“Yes, you see I didn’t want to disturb you at work so I called Ahmed to ask him.”
“Well, he’s wrong. It will heal by itself.”
“But M-Muqtadil, Ahmed said if my joints started hurting it would be an infection.”
“Just because Ahmed is a doctor does not make him God. It’s just an infection. Take some antibiotics for it.”
“But you just said it would heal by itself,” Faiz pitched in.
“Hush. It’s not polite to contradict your father,” chided Ayat, frowning at her first born.
“But he… he did say it, didn’t you Baba? I heard you.”
Muqtadil scooted up the sofa and grabbed Faiz by the collar and dragged him to the stairs. “First you don’t come to greet me. Now you are arguing when your mother has told you not to argue. If you can’t listen to your mother, then you can go up to your room and stay there!’
Ayat stood up, but then sat down again. She looked at Haroon who was staring defiantly at the television.
Muqtadil returned and leaned back on the sofa, stirring his green tea. Ayat’s finger was forgotten.
When Muqtadil would be in a good mood, he would make love to Ayat. Since that was not often, she relished the contact, even though his attentions left her sore afterwards. She watched her husband roll over and go to sleep. Ten years older than her, he was still a handsome man. He was getting slightly paunchy, but Ayat’s mother had told her this was a good sign: a man without a paunch in his middle age was a man married to a lousy cook.
She reached out to caress him but her hand hurt. This was going to be a problem. If he didn’t want to take her to the doctor, he wouldn’t.
Ayat wanted to complain, but she had so much to be thankful for. He was the director of a bank, and they lived in a beautiful house. He was loyal to her. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke. They had two beautiful boys. In the initial months of her marriage, her mother had told her that men tended to be mean sometimes. It was normal. It took them some time to cool down. She had been married to Muqtadil for seven years now. And she did do the silliest things sometimes, she thought to herself, like not clean the house properly, or burn the kebabs when she was nervous.
Ayat made a pledge, curling her hand into a fist: she wouldn’t make any mistakes. No. She’d be perfect. Muqtadil would have nothing to complain about.
With that resolution, she drifted off to sleep.
Since Muqtadil didn’t let Ayat drive, and the driver tended to be chronically late, mornings were always stressful for her. Her father used to send his car with a driver, but Ahmed’s wife had objected to the car being used by Ayat because she needed it in the mornings herself. Ayat resented her sister-in-law for this interference but said nothing to Ahmad about it. However, the driver casually trotted in at the nick of time and the boys were shipped off.
Ayat fixed a breakfast of pancakes, eggs and orange juice. She kissed Muqtadil on the forehead to wake him up. She ironed his shirt, careful not to leave out any crease. As he came out of the shower, he said he was in the mood for potato bhujia and puri. She was used to his impromptu demands, and told him he might have to wait for half an hour.
“Don’t bother,” he said. “I’m getting late for work.”
He left without even saying goodbye. Ayat cursed herself as she helped the maid with the dusting. She should have asked Muqtadil what he wanted for breakfast, she thought. One should not take so much for granted with a man like him: he had a bank to run, and he had the right to ask for something different for breakfast. So much for her new resolution.
“Bibi Jee, your hand is swelling,” the maid interrupted her thoughts. “It’s not good.”
She was a waif of a girl, flat chested and long-faced. “My mother cut her hand once and it became that colour. The hakeem said that it could have poisoned her.”
“Uff! I didn’t know you were a doctor too,” Ayat sneered. “You focus on your work and not on my hand. And work quietly. You talk too much.”
The maid resumed her cleaning, her face becoming even longer with hurt. Ignoring her, Ayat called her mother to say good morning, as she did at twelve o’ clock every day.
“Good morning, Ayatay,” her mother addressed her affectionately. “How are you, beti?”
“I’m fine, Amma. How are things at home? ”
“Bas, beti. One must always be thankful to Allah.”
Ayat knew this was what her mother said when she was displeased about something. Things had been tense since Ahmed’s wife had come to live with them.
“What happened, Amma?”
“Well, Amna and Ahmed have been fighting,” Ayat’s mother sounded unhappy. “She’s gone to her mother’s again.”
“Again? Didn’t you and Abba have a talk with her about her behavior? Why do you let her get away with this?”
“Bas, beti, she’s not like us. She doesn’t understand that men have to have their way. Ahmed doesn’t like her working, but she goes anyway. When I told her she should not do anything without her husband’s permission, she became enraged. You know what she said to me? She said that she’d put a clause in her nikah-nama that she should be allowed to work. What respectable girl taunts her mother-in-law with a nikah-nama? I told her that a good wife listens to her husband, not her nikah-nama.”
“She’s ungrateful, that’s what she is,” Ayat said, growing increasingly incensed at her sister-in-law’s antics. “Ahmed is under so much stress. Being a doctor in Karachi is not easy. Instead of taking care of him she’s ruining his peace of mind. If you ask me, he shouldn’t ask her to come back. Good riddance.”
“She said Ahmad had told her to get out of the house. I asked Ahmad about it. He didn’t deny it.”
“So? Men work day and night to support their wives. Sometimes they are harsh. It doesn’t mean you leave your house every day and create a tamasha every other week. Ahmed should just leave her there. Then we’ll see how she reacts.”
“No, beti. We don’t believe in divorce, you know that. Your father always says, “Once a girl leaves her father’s home, she can only return in a coffin.” But enough about Amna. How are you? How’s your hand?”
“It’s OK. Don’t worry about it.”
“Ahmed was saying it needs to be drained. Did you ask Muqtadil to take you to the doctor’s?”
“He said I just need antibiotics.”
“Amma, please. I’ll handle it,” Ayat cut in. “Don’t worry.”
“Just like you handled it when that terrible infection landed you in the emergency room?”
Ayat remembered how Muqtadil had told her she didn’t need a doctor when she had contracted a Urinary Tract Infection after their wedding night. “You just need antibiotics,” he had said. Her fever had raged, unabated. Only when she passed out naked in the bath tub did he relent and take her to the hospital’s emergency. Later, he shouted at her for being careless with her health.
“Amma, you know Muqtadil doesn’t like it when I argue with him. He will be upset if I got without him. You know how he reacted when we took Haroon to the hospital because he needed stitches.”
“If only he wasn’t so lazy he’d have taken his son himself instead of just lounging about in bed. I don’t know what is wrong with that boy. If only your father…”
Ayat’s mother stopped short, but Ayat knew exactly what her mother wanted to say. If only her father hadn’t insisted on her marriage with Muqtadil. He was her father’s nephew, and had returned from Australia after his first wife had left him. There had been rumors that he had beaten her but those were not to be believed, of course. When Muqtadil saw Ayat, he proposed and her father was ecstatic. Her mother was less eager: she was certain Ayat, with her sweet temperament and her good looks, would easily secure a better, younger, more suitable match. But Ayat’s father insisted.
“Acha, beti, tell me, when are you going to visit us?” Ayat’s mother broke the silence. “Why don’t you come today? I’ll ask the cook to make Nihari for us. Your father will call Muqtadil. We haven’t seen Haroon and Faiz for so long.”
Ayat cheered up at this prospect. It had been two weeks since she had seen her family, even though they lived down the road. Muqtadil was very particular that she only visited them in his presence but he would always make up excuses not to go when she would ask him. He would never say no, however, to an invitation from his uncle. It was against his code of conduct.
Ayat was almost ready. She was wearing her best dress and standing just inside the hallway, her eyes fixed on the woman in prayer on the stained glass window, as she tried to put on a particularly stubborn earring. The rays of the setting sun filtered through the woman’s hands, casting a depressingly pale blue glow on the hallway.
It was apparent that Muqtadil was in a temper. The tires screeched as he pulled into the driveway abruptly. He ignored the boys standing by the door, and stormed inside. Grabbing Ayat by her elbow, he dragged her to the lounge.
“You’ve been learning new tricks, haven’t you? Asking Chacha to call me at work so I couldn’t say no. What had I told you about going to your parents’ house for dinner?”
Ayat blinked back tears. “Muqtadil, it wasn’t my idea. It was Amma…”
“What did I tell you about going to your parent’s house?” Muqtadil shouted, his voice rebounding off the walls.
“You… you said we would go next week.”
“Is it next week yet?”
“Muqtadil, please,” Ayat pleaded.
“Is it next week yet?”
“No, Muqtadil it isn’t. I’m sorry. I will call and tell Amma that we’re not coming.”
Muqtadil let out a roar and threw his Blackberry at the fridge in a rage. It smashed into several pieces. “You’ll tell her what? That I spoiled the plans? What will you tell the boys? That Baba doesn’t want to go. Isn’t that what you want? To make them think I’m bad? So they’ll only love you?”
“No, janee, of course not. You’re their father. They love you. Muqtadil, I love you! If you want me to cancel, I can tell Amma that we cannot make it today.”
“Get ready to go. Next time, tell your father not to disturb me at the office.”
They filed silently into the car and drove down to the end of the road.
Muqtadil was despised by Ayat’s family and he hated them in return. But this ill feeling was disguised in the warmest of displays. Ayat’s father clasped him in a warm bear hug, and Muqtadil was the picture of decorum with his mother-in-law and Ahmed’s wife, who had returned after Ahmad assured her she could continue her job.
After dinner, when Amna wished for Shahi Supari, Muqtadil actually drove out to get her some, much to the apparent delight of the family. Ayat secretly bristled. He could be sweet to a spoiled brat like her sister-in-law but not to her. She remembered what her mother had once said to her in a moment of bitterness: once trodden, always trodden.
While the supari was being eaten, Ahmed asked Ayat about her finger.
“Ayat, it’s not looking good. If you don’t get it checked the infection can spread to your bone.”
“I’m fine, bhai, really.”
“I’m telling you. You shouldn’t let these things fester. They creep in and all of a sudden things get serious.”
“Ahmed likes to overreact, doesn’t he?” Muqtadil interrupted. “I think we should head home. It’s getting late and the boys look worn down.”
“But I don’t WANT to go,” Haroon let out a loud wail. Muqtadil looked annoyed.
“Oh Muqtadil, you can’t leave just yet. We haven’t had dessert,” Ayat’s mother proclaimed, but Ayat glared her down.
“No Amma, Muqtadil is right. We have to get going. But thanks for a wonderful dinner.”
On the inside, she dreaded returning home.
She lingered in the children’s bedroom after putting them to bed, afraid to go into hers.
Muqtadil was waiting for her.
“I’m leaving you.”
It wasn’t the first time he had said it. When they were newlyweds, he had often lost his temper and kicked her out of the house. Once, he had made her pack, and left her outside her parent’s house. Ayat knew her broken marriage would kill her parents, so she had dragged her suitcase up the road, thanking God it was the middle of the night and none of the neighbors were around to witness her shame. She had wept as she rang the bell. He had let her in only because she was pregnant with his child. She knew this because he had told her so.
Amma was right. Men did mellow after a few years of marriage. Muqtadil no longer kicked her out of the house. He just left himself.
“Janee, I’m sorry that you’re upset. But Ahmed was just concerned. He doesn’t know you said I should take antibiotics.”
“Why doesn’t he know?”
“Why doesn’t he know? He doesn’t know because you didn’t tell him. He doesn’t know because you don’t tell him not to interfere in our personal issues. He doesn’t know because he doesn’t respect me, because you don’t respect me.”
“Janee, please, don’t do this. I haven’t gone to the hospital. I haven’t. I’m on antibiotics.”
“If you are on antibiotics then why is your hand infected right now? No, I’ll tell you what I think. I think you haven’t had any medication. You want to make a fool of me. Prove to the world that I am wrong about everything. That’s why you wanted to go to dinner tonight. To show your family I’m not taking care of you.”
Ayat teared up. Her hand was hurting and she was tired.
“Please. Please don’t punish me.”
“I am a punishment, that’s why I’m leaving you. For your sake. Go on and marry someone else. A ghar-damaad like your family wants. I’m taking the car.”
Muqtadil slipped off the bed and walked away, shoving Ayat aside as she tried to stop him. She collapsed on the sofa in the living room, hoping he would return in the morning, like he usually did.
Muqtadil did not return the next evening, or the evening after that. He had smashed his phone so there was no way to call him. She called her father tearfully and told him about the situation.
“That bastard! That bloody bastard! After all I’ve done for him and his family. I paid for his entire education because my sister was a widow. I gave him my daughter when he returned alone from Australia. To repay me like this! Now, now, don’t cry, Ayat, don’t cry, my Jan. He will be back, he will be back.”
“Abba, I’m so alone,” sobbed Ayat, ready to collapse with grief and exhaustion.
“No, you are not alone. We are here for you, Ayat. If you want me to come and get you, I will be there right away. You can live with me. I will support you.”
“No one in our family has ever gotten a divorce, Abba. I don’t want to dishonor you.”
“It’s not a dishonor. Just tell me. What has Muqtadil to complain about? You are beautiful. You’ve given him sons. You cook and clean. You don’t fight. Yet he treats you like this. If I had a daughter-in-law like you, I would thank my lucky stars. But Ayat, I am telling you, I’ll not tolerate this anymore. I don’t care what your mother says about our family reputation. If Muqtadil is not back by tomorrow, I’m going to come and bring you home.”
“Abba, what about my sons? He’ll take them away from me.”
“No, beta. I’ll get the best lawyers. Money is not an issue.”
Ayat’s shoulders heaved as she sobbed violently. She was used to living with a sense of hopelessness, but her father’s words were giving her hope. He would take her home. She would be protected. But, what if things didn’t work out? What if, after a few days, her mother sent her back? What if Muqtadil came back the next morning?
To have hope in her heart and then to have it crushed would kill her, she thought. No, she couldn’t afford that.
“Go to bed, my chanda. Take a sleeping pill and go to bed. Don’t think about him. Let’s see what happens tomorrow. I’m down the road. Just call me and I’ll be there,” her father consoled her.
Ayat obeyed. She took a sleeping pill and curled up in between the boys. They fell asleep in each other’s arms.
She woke up to see the sunlight streaming in: she had left the window open at night so she could hear the sound of Muqtadil’s car if he returned. She stiffened instinctively and then relaxed. She liked the sun. Its brightness annoyed Muqtadil but he was not here to scold her for her carelessness. He wasn’t here.
Ayat looked down at Haroon and Faiz, asleep on her arms, snuggling close. She smiled and felt comforted. The clock struck eleven. Ayat gingerly placed each boy’s head onto a pillow and tucked them in and shut the window. She checked her cell phone. Her father had called five times. She dialed his number.
“Mera Beta,” his kind voice greeted her like the warm sun rays. “Why were you not picking up?”
“Salaam Abba,” Ayat’s voice sounded hoarse even to herself. “I was asleep. I mustn’t have heard it.”
“Did you sleep well, beti?”
“Yes, Abba, I did.”
“Is he back?”
“I’m sending the driver. Pack up all your clothes in a suitcase. Where’s your jewelry?”
“It’s in Muqtadil’s locker. In the bank.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m coming home from the office. You get ready and come home. We’ll think about what to do. Don’t worry, beta. Things will be fine.”
Ayat smiled her first genuine smile in a long time. Things would be fine.
Ayat sat next to her mother, sipping a cup of hot tea, which the cook had mixed for her. She felt at peace. She didn’t have to worry about cleaning or cooking. It was like she was on a vacation after years of work. She stretched out her arms and hugged her mother, who lowered Ayat’s head in her lap, stroking her hair like she used to when Ayat was in school.
That night, they had a family conference. Amna had been told to take the boys to watch a movie. Muqtadil had not returned. He hadn’t called, either. Ayat’s father decided she would move in with them permanently.
“But where will she stay?” asked Ayat’s mother, alarmed.
“She will move into Amna and Ahmed’s room. It’s the biggest in the house and Haroon and Faiz also need to have their space. Amna will have to make do with living in the guest room. When Muqtadil comes home, I will talk to him. The way he has treated Ayat is unacceptable. I will not stand for it any more.”
“A divorce?” asked his wife, hesitantly.
Ayat started and looked up at her father. She hadn’t thought that far.
“Separation, for the time being.”
“But, he’s the father of her children. She’s his wife,” Ayat’s mother protested.
“She’s my daughter. I forgave him when he tried to separate her from us. All couples have their problems, but enough is enough. If I knew Muqtadil would behave like this I would never have given my daughter to him. But I can take her back as well, if I please.”
The dictate was given and Ayat felt relieved. For the first time in years, she was finally home.
Ahmed took Ayat to the hospital to have her hand treated. It was painful and the doctor asked her why she had waited for so long. Ayat gave him a tired smile and said she had been busy.
Days spilled into a week and then two weeks. Life became idyllic for Ayat. Her parents pampered her, oiled her hair, cooked her favorite foods and fed her with their hands like they had done when she was a baby. She and Ahmed talked for hours on end. The children were happier too, laughing and riding the old bikes, which had been taken out of the store and serviced. Every evening, Ayat cooked something for her father, knowing it would be praised to the skies. She helped Amna with the dusting, and eventually took over the duty after Ahmed remarked that the house had never looked cleaner.
After the longest time, she actually read a book. Somehow, when she had been married to Muqtadil, she hadn’t been able to focus on a single sentence, even in a newspaper. Now, she picked up an old copy of Anne of Green Gables and read it from cover to cover.
At nights, before going to sleep, she sometimes thought about Muqtadil. Where was he? Why would he not return? He had no one to go to. His parents were buried in Australia, and he had no siblings. Not even any close friends.
It had been three weeks since Muqtadil had left. Her hand hurt less and less.
They were having dinner when the bell rang. Ayat recognized it instantly: it was curt, to the point, like a rap on the wrist. Muqtadil had returned. She leaped up instinctively and was about to rush to the door as she had done for years, when her father’s voice called out sharply.
“Ayat, stay inside. I will open the door,” he commanded. “Take Haroon and Faiz, and go to your bedroom. Close the door.”
Ayat felt her short-lived peace of mind desert her. Why had he come? Did he want her back? Had he come for the children? Would her father send her back? What would happen? Her head was full of questions.
Suddenly, she felt rage. She wanted to go and hit Muqtadil, ask him why he had treated her so badly. She wanted to tell him to talk to her, to face her, not her father. Why was he not demanding to see his wife? Why was her fate being decided in a conversation between uncle and nephew?
For two hours, she heard the men speak outside. Then, the door opened, and her father told her that Muqtadil had gone home.
Ayat was bereft. Muqtadil had gone home? Not asked for his sons? Not asked to see her. She felt as if she had been punched in the stomach.
Her father caught her as she fell, fainting.
When she woke up, she was in bed. Ahmed was taking her blood pressure, and Amna hovered behind him. Her parents sat at the edge of the bed, with their grandchildren on their laps.
“Ayat? Can you hear me?” asked Ahmed gently.
Ayat nodded and felt a wave of dizziness. When it settled, she turned to her father, with tears in her eyes.
“He didn’t want me back?”
Her father told her it was not the time to discuss such things. “Go to sleep for now, my jan. We will talk tomorrow.”
Muqtadil wanted Ayat back, her father told her the next morning, but he had said that she must come back herself; he would not come and get her.
“But where had he been all this while?”
“He’d gone to Bangkok. He said he had a business meeting and decided to travel around a bit.”
“But how could he have just taken off?”
“Ayat, you need to focus. He is selfish. He did it to hurt you, to hurt us. God knows what crime he’s punishing me for by treating you like this. Ayat, you have to decide whether you want to stay with us or go back to him. Whatever decision you make, it needs to be final.”
“Abba, my children?”
“He lives down the road, he can see them whenever he wants. You’re not going to be divorced right now anyway. Just separated. Once Muqtadil comes to his senses, you can go back on your terms. In a position of power.”
Ayat stirred her cereal. Not to go home to Muqtadil. To stay with her parents, surrounded by their love. To have her children grow up in a wholesome atmosphere. It seemed too good to be true. She felt her heart would heal. She knew the sting of Muqtadil’s insult would fade. It always did.
But, people would find out. These things had a way of making themselves known. Generations of good repute would be sullied by her separation. Her mother had often told her the cruel things her father had done to her in the first year of their marriage.
But her father had changed. He treated his wife like a Queen now. Would Muqtadil also come around? If she went back? Did just a little bit more?
She thought of the freedom she now had. Not waking up with a sense of dread in the pit of her stomach, pressing her down like an anvil on her head. Not worrying about constant criticism. Oh, the luxury of not having to measure each and every word she uttered in a disapproving presence.
The more Ayat thought about it, the more confused she became. The more her torment increased. She asked God for a sign: anything to help her make her decision.
That evening, after Ayat returned with the boys from their Karate class, she saw her father pacing the living room. Ahmed sat staring at the television, not really watching the cricket match that was being aired. Her mother held his hand, with tears in her eyes and atasbeeh in her hand.
“What happened?” asked Ayat, a chill creeping up her back.
“Amna. She has left.”
“Again? She’ll be back, Ahmed, don’t worry. Just go back and get her.”
“She’s taken all her clothes, Ayat, and all the jewelry.”
“So? She can bring them back with her. What’s her problem this time?”
Ahmed remained silent.
“I don’t know why you put up with her, Ahmed. She doesn’t love you. If she did, she wouldn’t leave all the time. She would not do anything to displease you. She would live her life to serve you. Let her go. To hell with her!”
Her father put his hand on her shoulder.
“Ayat, she’s handed Ahmed the divorce papers.”
“Divorce papers. It seems like she’s been planning this for some time. She moved out her things bit by bit to her mother’s. Her lawyer called Ahmed at the office today. She has left forever.”
Ayat blinked in disbelief. “She gave him the papers! Who is she to do such a thing? My brother is an angel. If anything, he should have left her. Kicked her out of the…”
She realized the words forming on the tip of her tongue. Kick Amna out of the house, the way Muqtadil had kicked her out.
Ayat shifted on her feet and looked at her father, who was looking away.
“Ayat,” interjected her mother. “You must go back to Muqtadil.”
“What?” Ayat swerved to look at her mother.
“One divorce in the family is bad enough. If you stay here, people will think it’s our fault. We won’t be able to show our face in public.”
“Why, Amma? Why won’t we be? It’s not Ahmed’s fault Amna left him. She was always selfish. And everyone knows that Muqtadil’s first wife left him because he beat her. They won’t blame me. This is perfect, Amma. The four of us together again. No Amna. No Muqtadil. Just we together – like old times.”
Her mother put her face in her hands and started crying. Ahmed got up and walked out of the room. Ayat heard him start the car and pull out of the drive way. She looked back at her parents. They looked away. Once trodden, always trodden.
The lights were on as Ayat stepped in. The woman in the stained glass window seemed to be asleep in the pale light as if she’d lost all hope of her prayer ever being heard. Dust had gathered on the window. It made her look as if she had been buried alive in sand.
The marble floor glistened under the yellow light. It seemed that the house was empty but she knew Muqtadil was there – she could hear the television inside their bedroom.
After putting the boys to bed, Ayat squared her narrow shoulders and curled her hands into fists by her side. Her finger had healed, but there was a slight stiffness in the joint.
She opened the door. Muqtadil sat calmly, staring into space. His coal black eyes raked over her. He smiled a humorless smile as she walked in.
“Welcome home, Mama.”