Laila- the protagonist
Mehdi- Laila's husband
Reza " Laila's brother
Begum Nusrat " Laila's mother
Mumtaz - Reza's wife
It had four years since they got married. Laila and Mehdi. Four years since the union of two impoverished aristocrats, as she secretly called herself and her husband. It was of her own choice. She had fallen in love with his face and blood line. It was hard to ignore the lure of the blue blood when all you had heard growing up was how that person was "khandani"- of the right family and how that other person's grandfather was a "mochi"-cobbler by birth " of course the fact that the cobbler's grand children owned half of the city now would have no bearing on these discussions.
She had been so excited about her upcoming wedding that she had not let her mother, Begum Nusrat, delay the wedding dates after her distant cousin had died in an accident. It was a month before the wedding. Her relatives were aghast and half of them did not attend. The required forty days of mourning had not elapsed. It is funny that the dead cousin's mother still did not talk to her. The marriage was over and yet she was still paying the price for her dumb insensitivity.
She had lived with her in-laws for the past four years but that was not the problem at all. The problem was that her husband did nothing. He was of that class of land-lords who had the name but not the land holding anymore. There had been a time in the early part of the century that his forefathers had hundreds and hundreds of acres. Maybe bestowed by the British for the family's loyalty. Or, maybe granted by the local muslim prince to the mystic forefather. Who knows about history? Every generation distorts it to suit their present reality. Mehdi's mind had adhered itself to the mystic forefather version. He prided himself on his impeccable lineage, 'We never bowed down to the bloody British like our neighbors', he would snigger.
Initially, she had been patient. She had slowly worked on him. He was educated and had the looks to please just about anybody. So, the bank jobs did come by. Again and again. He just kept leaving them. Taking orders from somebody was not his strength. They would fight after every face saving resignation. He would scream at her. What is your issue, he would ask. All the bills are paid, you have a nice car, you eat good food, so why do you care that I do not have a job. Did she really expect him to take orders from a man whose father was his maternal cousin's grandfather's clerk? How her husband managed to collect such information about each and every boss was beyond her. He is qualified, she would retort. His grandfather was a village school master when my grandfather was building tens of school, was her husband's sharp reply. The landholding had gone but the ego that came with it had stayed.
She did worry. She herself had not completed her education and at that time had felt no need to sit for her college exams. She had found herself a nice, educated, well connected man and that was enough for her. At that time. Now she worried even more when she looked to her Harvard-educated brother, Reza, who had the same aristocratic background but had the cut-throat ambition that was rare in men of his stock.
Reza did not believe in resting on past family glory but wanted to use whatever was left of the family name to enter politics. There was darkness to his looks and to his soul. There was something Machiavellian about his actions. There were whispers in the family that after his father's death he had become too ambitious. Too autocratic. There should be no questions asked, seemed to be his behavior with his mother, Begum Nusrat and sister. Although, the same rules did not seem to apply to his wife, the tall and dusky Mumtaz.
He had married Mumtaz much against Begum Nusrat's wishes. She thought Mumtaz came from the wrong lot and had manipulated to marry into the right lot. Mumtaz in her heart agreed with Begum Nusrat. She believed she had married the right man with the right situation. She wanted her husband to take all the family property and completely cut Laila and Begum Nusrat out of it. The fact that she had married into a sect of muslims- 'the shias'-who believed in equal distribution of properties, was quite lost on her. She had gotten Shah Reza Gillani in spite of all the resistance to the marriage and so this new project was not even half as difficult.
Mehdi, Laila's spouse, on the other hand, had no illusions to expand his ever-shrinking portfolio of properties. He slept all day and was up all night, watching movies. She tried to follow his routine but would find it to inane after a few days. There was her daughter to consider also. Children get up in the mornings, and should sleep at night, she would implore to her husband. So what, he would reply, she is my daughter. She can do anything. His brand of narcissism and ill-founded sense of importance was just too much to bear. She would answer back and another fight would start. He would get infuriated at her, try to hit her to make her shut-up, and so the fight would reach another crescendo. The next morning would be spent finding ways to cover the signs from her daughter.
She even tried ignoring him as a strategy. She kept to herself. Just played with her daughter and visited her mother who needed her support to withstand the constant bickering of her daughter-in-law. Laila was well ware of Mumtaz's attitude towards her mother but tried to keep out of it. She knew her rocky relationship with her husband had given Mumtaz too much ammunition against her. It did not suit Mumtaz's plans to have her sister-in-law come back home so she proceeded to befriend Mehdi, showered him with presents and massaged his hollow ego.
Reza seemed to approve of his wife's modus operandi, although Laila thought that Mumtaz's affections bordered on being lewd. Mehdi seemed to revel in Mumtaz's show of effusiveness and was not resistant to mentioning her sister-in-law's glad eye during some of his fights with Laila. It made Laila's position even weaker in front of her husband. He would use Mumtaz's modern lifestyle to taunt Laila and remind her again and again that his home would never allow for such behavior.
Laila blamed her mother for their helpless situations after her father's death. It is my mother's own fault, she often thought. Giving everything to her son after he had returned from Harvard had not been a wise choice. Now Reza was constantly fighting with Begum Nusrat over small things as Begum Nusrat's old style and Mumtaz's new style clashed. Mumtaz wanted to be queen-bee of the household.
So all Begum Nusrat could do was bicker to all her relatives about Mumtaz. Her clan extended to almost all the old-families from central Punjab and so the gossip would spread like wild fire. Mumtaz would hear of it, tell her husband, and there would be big row between the mother and son. Begum Nusrat would tell Laila about these fights but would always manage to make Reza's role minimum and Mumtaz's role maximum.
'He says all these things to you, why don't you tell him off', Laila would ask Begum Nusrat.
'It's not his fault; it's the black magic that she does on him. Such woman will do anything to keep their husbands', Begum Nusrat would then look at Laila with the look that said you cannot even do that. In Begum Nusrat's eyes there was nothing wrong with Mehdi's constant bleating about past glory and inability to keep a job.
'Some men are just not cut out for work. Their fathers and grandfathers never worked'. She deliberately tries to be obtuse, Laila would often think. Maybe she does not want to encourage me. Maybe she doesn't know that he beats me. Maybe she does. Laila had never really brought the topic to the fore. She felt so helpless that voicing it out would make her feel even more incapacitated. What could her mother do anymore, anyway? She herself was dependent upon Reza's mercy.
The discussion would soon return to Mumtaz and her black magic ways and how she makes Reza fight with her. It would make no difference to Begum Nusrat that Reza always chose to listen to his wife and never his mother. Their cousin's had their own brand of theories about this lopsided mother-son relationship. 'Masi Nusrat never kept a good home for her husband. She was running to her mother's house. He always complained to Reza while he was a boy. Now Reza has no respect for his mother. The father ruined it all before dying. Now Masi thinks she can buy Reza's love by giving Reza everything'.
One day, Laila got sick of bickering with Mehdi and decided to go see her mother. It was right after Mumtaz had gotten a wall erected in the middle of the house, leaving her mother with two small rooms and small patch of the back garden. The palatial house seemed asymmetrical with the strange division. Laila had felt so embarrassed to see her mother reduced to such a pitiful state. All her mother's family had been aghast at this. Now, they had expected Begum Nusrat to finally put her foot down with her son. They were wrong. She just continued to blame her daughter-in-law for the black magic she was doing on her son. 'She makes him do it!', Begum Nusrat would answer every questioning look with it.
'How can my Harvard educated son treat me like this. It has to be his wife. She goes to a baba-magician outside Lahore who gives her talismans. Sardaran, the cook, has seen her putting it in my son's food'. Sardaran, the old cook from the village, had soon learnt to keep two mistresses happy. Laila was sure she said the exact same thing to Mumtaz. Probably more, as Mumtaz had more to give to her. Laila would listen with dismay to all these conversations
She could hear a lot of shouting as she got out of the car, so she hurriedly told her in-laws driver to go home. She did not want her family servants gossiping with her in-laws driver. Her life was complicated enough. The shouting got louder as she walked towards her mother's little portion.
She slowly walked through the door and saw Mumtaz shouting at the top of her voice and all Laila could hear were the words, 'I have been poisoned', and then she saw her brother hit her mother across the face. She saw a trickle of blood run down her mother's white starched kameez-shirt and then she saw Sardaran howling and running towards her Begum.
Laila just stood transfixed at the door. Was she sleeping? Was this a nightmare? Nobody hits their mother? Wasn't that what they were taught? Ever since they had been children every Muslim child would hear that jannat-heaven is underneath a mother's feet. They all believed that. Didn't her brother believe that anymore?
Laila just stood there. She though of her father. How he had pampered her mother. He never addressed her without adding Begum to it first. Oh Papa, where are you? What is this lot that you have left us with? Who is this man that is supposed to be my brother? Wasn't he supposed to be the protector of our honour after you died? Isn't that our culture?
She flash backed to the months after her father's death. She had been twelve. She remembered the ceremony when her paternal uncle had placed her father's pagari-head garb on Reza's eighteen year old head. It symbolized so many things. That lala-her elder brother was the head of the household. Every decision concerning the lands, her marriage, family matters had to be decided by him. But it was more a formality because Reza had soon left for Harvard and Begum Nusrat had looked after all the financial affairs.
It all exploded through her head as she reached to her mother. Till now nobody had noticed her. Laila started shouting at her brother. Begum Nusrat stared at her with a surprise and just walked out of the room. Her brother just walked off to his side of the house and Mumtaz told her to shut up and control herself.
Laila was shocked. Where was her mother's shock and disbelief at her son hitting her? She rushed towards her mother and realized that her mother had locked herself in the bathroom. "Mama, are you ok?...Sardaran..bring some water'. She heard the click of the door and her mother stepped out with a complete dead pan expression her face.
'What are you doing here Laila, where is Mehdi?', Begum Nusrat asked.
Laila was transfixed. Had she heard correctly? Was the issue that she had come unannounced? Had her mother lost her mind? 'Mama why did lala hit you, are you ok?. Even in this moment of agony she could not call him anything but the title of Lala- the big brother. It was ironic. He was big.....big on abuse, it seemed.
Bugum Nusrat's eyes became slits and she whispered 'It's that witch Mumtaz, she told him that I had poisoned her'. Laila was confused. 'Was she poisoned?.....she seemed fine to me....why would anybody poison her?'
'He took her to the hospital last night and the doctors washed her stomach. But you know your Amina Masi told me today that this is the fifth time her stomach has been washed. She has tried killing herself before she came to our house...that is why she is insane...of course her father was closet gay and her mother was having affairs ..... that is why she is so unstable....her aunt told Amina Masi that does this each time she does not get her way'.
He mother rambled on and on and Laila just looked at her with disbelief. She was gossiping at this point! Had she unhinged something in her mind?
'Mama, lala just HIT you, what is wrong with you...who cares about Mumtaz and her suicide attempts....WHO CARES!', Laila screamed.
'Shush.... be quiet... she will hear', Begum Nusrat looked scared. Suddenly it dawned upon Laila. Oh my God! This was not the first time her mother had been hit. She had noticed some tell-tale signs before but she had been too wrapped up in her misery to really dig deep. A slight purplish tinge to the cheek, ruffled hair, plastered smile, unusually caustic tongue.
'Mama, you don't have to take this. Why should lala do this to you? You are the owner of this house, and you have a stake in my father's lands. Mama, we can go to your brother. Mamu Hameed will sort it out......he still has your lands from your father's side'.
Begum Nusrat looked at her icily. Her whole body language changed. 'You want me to complain to your Mamu about my son. My son.... who has to contest in the coming elections from our village. You want my son not to have a chance of your Mamu's favours'.
'So he can hit you...where is your dignity, Begum Nusrat?' Laila hissed back. Are you mad?' Laila's head was spinning. What has her world come to? Was it all normal outside her world? Were her other cousins and aunts getting abused also? She highly doubted it. How did her own mother end up like this?
'Don't you dare speak to me to like this....what do you know...I worked to hard to send him to Harvard....what do you know...you haven't even completed your B.A'.
'And whose fault is that....it was always lala this.......lala that...and he repays you like this ........BY HITTING YOU', Laila was now on the verge of crying.
'Its' not his fault...it's the black magic that Mum.....'
Laila could not let her finish, 'you have lost your mind...all your life you have worshipped your brother and now you are translating all that to your abusive son'.
'At least I can respect the men in my life. this is Pakistan....we don't exist without respecting a man......you cant even respect your husband'.
'He hits me', Laila blurted out. This was the final bitter truth of her marriage. She had expected that it would come out one day. But not like this. Not as a parallel to her own mother's reality!
'So? Your father hit me'.
Laila just stared at Begum Nusrat. This could not be true. Why would her father be like that? Her parents had a good marriage. It seemed like a picnic, in retrospect. They had a huge network of first cousins. Related by marriages, they were in each other's homes all the time. Playing bridge, listening to classical music, having all night political discussions. Where was the time to fight in those close-knit times?
'That is a lie...you are making it up'
'Why just because he was your father you think he never hit me. Of course he did. Your Mamu is an exception. He is a great man. His wife is very lucky'. Even in these extreme circumstances Begum Nusrat couldn't help extolling her brother's many virtues.
I would be this gracious also if I had all my sister's land in my hands and a very rich wife to pay the bills and send all the kids to Cambridge.....for a split second Laila mused. How bitter I am! She thought a second later.
She just looked at her mother. The aristocratic Begum Nusrat Mahmood Gillani. An aristocrat from her mother and father's side. Small droplets of blood on her white-as-snow shirt. Very small droplets, almost not there. Like the abuse she put up with. Almost not there. Till you knew where to look. Then it was as evident as a massacre.
She was standing here defending her son and explaining it away to black magic. Laila knew that her mother had written off everything from her parent's side to her own brother so that her brother's land holding would not be any less than his first cousins. She had refused to take any chunk of the huge house where her parents had lived. And she had given everything from her husband in her son's hands so that he would have the same respect as his other richer cousins. He could have complete control of the lands...Laila's share included. Laila, then understood that her mother may even regret her decisions that had amputated her financially but she had the mettle to see it through to her last breath.
Because she believed in it. She believed in these feudal arrangements.
Laila turned back from her mother and walked out. She had decided what she was going to do. She was going to the court of law to get her share of her property from her lala. She almost spat at the word. She needed her husband to see this through in a Pakistani society.
Then she was going to divorce Mehdi.
As far as custody of her child was concerned she was going to let Mehdi have her. As a lone woman with no father, brother or husband she did not want to bring up a daughter.
After all her daughter had to marry the right kind.