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Cherished (Short Story)

by Humera Ahmed
(Mumbai, India)

Fatima was in a tizzy : there was just an hour for the bridegroom family to arrive for Naaz’s Mehndi ceremony. She had been busy throughout the day or for that matter for the last few days preparing the house for Naaz’s wedding. It was a large bungalow, with nearly seven bedrooms, a huge drawing cum dining area. But it was inadequate for all the close relatives who planned to stay with them. Hence in one wing she had to make arrangements for the male relatives and in another for the female, besides keeping separate rooms for the elderly members. The spacious drawing cum dining room had been converted into a function hall, decorated with strings of Mogra flowers and confetti hangings. Her daughter Rana, with her cousin had made exquisite floral designs with rose petals and sprinkled rose water all over. Her husband Azhar had taken care of the exterior arrangements and decorations: a large pavilion had been erected and string of lights twinkled from the roof, the branches of the trees and flower bushes in the spacious garden.

Close relatives had started arriving and while Azhar received them, she rushed to the bedroom to get dressed She opened the closet and took out the Zardozi embroidered pale yellow silk sari specially purchased for the occasion. She hadn’t been keen to wear this color but it was the theme colour of the ceremony. It made her skin look sallow and reminded her of her disastrous Mehendi ceremony nearly twenty four years back. She shook off the memory of that evening and concentrated in pleating the folds of the sari when her mobile rang. It was from Parveen, Naaz’s maternal aunt! Fatima knew why she had rung up. Obviously to remonstrate for not inviting them to the wedding! She picked up the phone and was taken back to hear Azra, Naaz’s mother’s shrill voice. She disconnected the call angrily. How did she have the gumption to call her “But then Azra could do anything,that was common knowledge." The mobile rang. She ignored it; she had to get dressed soon. She quickly draped the sari, applied some makeup while the mobile kept persistently ringing. Before leaving the room she decided to answer it otherwise Azra would continue to pester her. This time it was Parveen. She was pleading : “Fatima , Azra is here. She wants to meet her daughter just for a few minutes.”
“But for that, you will have to take her father’s permission. I can’t do anything.” She replied curtly.

As she disconnected, she heard the sounds of the dholak reverberating in the house. Rana and the other girls had choreographed a number of film songs connected with the Mehndi ceremony. The bejeweled, vivacious young girl cousins all dressed in yellow ghagra choli’s swirled on the floor, their skins aglow and fragrant with constant rubbing of yellow turmeric and sandalwood around the glowing, blushing and demure bride bedecked with flowers,her fair hands and feet intricately patterned with henna designs.

Quite a few of the relatives were sitting on the sedans lining the wall, clapping and taping the ground in tune with the music. She went around welcoming them and they embraced her and sent blessings on the bride for a happy life. But quite a few were aware that Azra had landed in Hyderabad and was keen to attend the wedding: she had been sending pleading messages to them to request her ex-husband Aslam to allow her to meet Naaz, just for a few minutes. Fatima was certain that she would not depart after the meeting her but stay on taking center stage , causing consternation to her ex-husband and embarrassment to the family. But that was Azra,uncaring, unrepentant and totally self centered.

“What audacity!” One of the elderly aunts murmured, "to expect to be invited. It’s good that Naaz does not have her traits and was brought up by Fatima.” Fatima moved away. She had often heard herself being praised for her patience, her goodness,her graciousness and Azra being derided for her capricious and way ward behavior. But what had she attained for her patience -? A life of compromise? In place of the good looking and highly qualified Aslam an American Citizen, to whom she had been engaged, she had to marry his younger handicapped brother! And all because Azra had succeeded in captivating him with her beauty and vivacity. On the day of her Mehendi ceremony, they had got secretly married and to save face, her father and father-in-law persuaded her to marry Azhar She had been shattered: at 26 she had been upstaged by her 19-year old student, ditched simply because she wasn’t beautiful enough. Her future seemed bleak-her chances of finding an eligible match were remote. She had nothing against Azhar –he was kind and considerate, but it was a compromise and it rankled badly and
did till date. Hence she felt a sense of poetic justice when after a few years Azhar came back heartbroken with two small children because Azra had left him for his much younger cousin!

“Fatima aunty," she heard, Omer, Naaz’s brother call out to her,from the verandah and saw Azhar shuffling towards her, "Uncle wants to speak to you.” She knew the moment she saw Azhar that Azra had got in touch with him.

Azhar asked Amer to attend to the guest and only when he was out of hearing, muttered “She has spoken to you also.”
"Yes. What can we do? You can at best ask Aslam bhai."

He was silent for some time trying to formulate his thoughts.
“I find it very dif ..i i..cult “he stammered
“It is not easy. But you will have to. The decision is his.”
“But how does she expect him to agree after all that she did to him?”

Fatima shrugged her shoulders. "Please go and ask him. I have to go back in the hall to start the ceremony.”

As he limped his way to the male section of the house, Fatima wondered what Zahra’s reaction would be to the request. She had been instrumental in causing him so much humiliation and suffering. When he had divorced her and brought the children to India she had filed a suit in the US Court accusing him of taking the children away without her consent and he was imprisoned for nearly ten years! When he returned to India he had drastically aged –at forty five he was a tired old man. But Azra hadn’t given up and pursued the case for custody of the children in the Indian Courts for nearly two years. But she lost the case when the children declared in the court that they wanted to stay with their father. She had however kept track of them through her sister Parveen.

She heard Azhar’s shuffle and turning saw him coming towards her with an agitated Azhar, his hands and lips quivering nervously. He mumble:
“Fatima,I have left it to Naaz. You ask her.”
“There are so many people there ..”
"But we have to let her know. Any way she will come to know. She must be messaging all and sundry.”

Fatima walked into the function hall just as Rana was coming out to call her.
“Where are you mum? Everyone is waiting for you?”

Without answering her daughter she walked to Naaz and gently lifting her veil, whispered “Your mother would like to meet you.”
Naaz startled,opened her eyes wide.
"She is here?”
“No, she will come if you agree to meet her.”
“And Dad, what does he say?”
“He has left it to you.”

She looked uncertain for a moment, then said resolutely. "OK, she can come after the ceremony. Once the guests have departed.”

It was past ten when Fatima led Naaz out to her bedroom. Azhar had messaged her at about 10 pm that Azra had already arrived and was waiting in their bedroom.

As soon as they stepped in the room, Azra dashed to embrace Naaz, crying: “Oh Naaz, I am so happy to see you, my darling child.”

Naaz stiffened and stepped back and calmly looked at her mother. The resemblance was striking as far as complexion and features were concerned but the expression and demeanor was different: she didn’t have her mother’s vivacity and bright eyes, her eyes were dark liquid black pools, her face, still and calm and her demeanor gentle and composed – a quality which she seemed to have acquired from Fatima.
“Azra wasn’t dissuaded by her daughter’s lack of warmth. You don’t know how I have longed to see you. You look as I had imagined you would be. Beautiful!”
“Is it something so great to be beautiful? Is it an achievement?”

Azra seemed taken back for a moment, but then gushed: "I am so happy that you have found such a good boy. I have always prayed for you to be happily settled in life.”
“Yes, please do thank God and then please thank Fatima aunty. Whatever we are, Omer and I, it is because of her.”

Azra’s face fell, she swallowed hard.

Fatima remonstrated : “Azra doesn’t have to thank me.You know Naaz, you and Omer were like my children. I didn’t differentiate between you and Rana.”
"Yes I know. When we were given a choice in court we opted for Dad, but the reason we did was because of you – for the love, the devotion and care you have given us.”

Tears streamed down Fatima’s cheeks, as she heard Azra's sob and Aslam's sigh. For the first time in her life she understood the power of sincere selfless love and the years of pain and regret disappeared. She walked over to Naaz and hugged her. She felt truly cherished.


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