fiction

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By ANNIE ZAIDI | 1 February 2015

About  The Story Love,more than any other human emotion, makes us imagine a world different from the one we know. Mostly this vision of perfection looks to the future, but in Annie Zaidi’s story, it looks to the past. Fifteen years after his lover married another man, the protagonist, Suhail, receives a letter she had sent him with a plan for elopement. The letter draws him from the new life he has made for himself back to the small town where he first dreamt of happiness with his beloved. His return creates a tumult, and the town becomes both audience and actor in the case lodged on his behalf in the local court by his spirited cousin, the lawyer Sheeba.

The story, told from Sheeba’s perspective, breaks repeatedly into entertaining interludes in which a range of reactions from around the town—and all around India—are described without comment. No one can resist opining on the relationship between love and marriage, self and society, past and present. What will come of this for Suhail? And will his old flame, the long-married Khushbu Rawat, reveal her own mind? Zaidi’s story is a fine example of fiction’s capacity for polyphony and moral inquiry.

 

Registered Post

ANNIE ZAIDI

 

It was 7.30 in the morning and my alarm hadn’t gone off when Suhail showed up. I was still in my nightie when the bell rang and I was just looking for a dupatta to throw over my chest. But Shahryar said he’d get the door, so I settled back into bed.

A whole minute passed. The silence outside was making me nervous. Nobody who comes to our door in this town leaves without saying a word or two, even if it is just salaam, ram-ram, or I’llshowyoubitchjustwatch. Milkman, postman, courier, goons sent by the other party after I’ve had a good day in court. Everybody has something to say. Besides, Shahryar always says something when he answers the door. I usually wait to hear the click of the door before I call out to ask who it was.

I called out now but there was no reply. So I rolled off the bed and ran barefoot to the front door. And there he was—Suhail. He was dragging a backpack into the drawing room while Shahryar tried to wrest it from his hands so he could carry it indoors himself. Scruffier than I thought possible, although Achhi Khala did send us a photo after his last visit home. I’d thought even then that this must be the scruffiest engineer on the planet. Bearded, greying, shabby in those stained jeans and a jacket that looked like he’d picked it up cheap at some Tibetan market. Even his smile was kind of shabby.

Shahryar made the morning coffee as usual, and took the joke manfully when Suhail clapped him on the back and said I had trained him well. Then he stepped out, mumbling about ‘Sunday Special’ breakfast. When the sound of the scooter faded into the morning quiet, I turned to my cousin.

“Fifteen years, huh?”

Suhail was staring into his coffee mug. I poked a finger into his side playfully but regretted it at once. I could feel his ribs through the jacket. I slurped up my coffee noisily, and wondered if I shouldn’t just ask him outright and be done with it.

“So? Still gifting your millions to those wretched distillers in the hills?”

He smiled. “Is that the current masala item on the Rizvi clan’s gossip menu?”

“That Suhail is a drunk? Yes. From Dubai to Australia, it is known. You’re internationally famous.”

He looked away, took a gulp of the coffee, grimaced, then drained the cup. “Your house is a bloody sugar factory!” And he reached out a finger and poked my belly. “And you’re the same old lazy lump of corruption.”

A second later, he frowned down at my belly. “You’re not growing things in there, are you?”

I pinched his arm hard, like I used to when we were kids. He settled back against the sofa, ran his fingers through his hair.

“You need a haircut,” I said.

“I need a lawyer,” he said.

And then he told me that we were going to sue the Government of India.

What had happened was this. Cousin Suhail was busy destroying the lower Himalayas with his dam-building and his liver with the local liquor, when there arrived a package. Inside it was another envelope, old and yellowed, addressed to Suhail Rizvi, c/o Sheeba Rizvi. The sender’s name was Khushbu Rawat.

It didn’t take long for him to figure out what had happened. The old letter had been sent via registered post fifteen years ago. Khushbu had written to say that her family was trying to force her into a wedding, but she would slip out of her house somehow. Suhail was to wait for her behind the Shia graveyard every night of the week. There were five trains leaving Ranipur between nine and midnight. They would board one and get married at the registrar’s office in Delhi. The future would take care of itself, she wrote.

And it would have. But the letter had arrived fifteen years too late. Khushbu Rawat was now married to one Umesh Tiwari and was mother to two school-going boys. And Suhail Rizvi had wasted his youth getting drunk while working on a series of infrastructure projects in remote parts of the country, as far away from home and his memories as he could be.

I had heard that Khushbu had tried to run away before her wedding, but her family had caught her and dragged her back. Half of Ranipur knew this. Her friends knew that she was not allowed to use the phone. When Suhail failed to show up, she had had no option but to go through with the wedding.

I also knew that Khushbu had no desire to dredge up the past. Two years ago, I spotted her at the Saturday haat, but I almost didn’t recognise her—saree worn seedha palla style, head covered, big red bindi, gold jewellery, haggling over the price of tindas. When I called out her name, she did not answer. I had to run after her and tap her on the shoulder. She finally turned to me and I could see that she recognised me. But when she spoke, it was like she was crunching ice between her teeth. “My name is Sunita Tiwari,” she said. “You must have mistaken me for someone else.”

I tried to dissuade Suhail. It was too late now; Khushbu had moved on. But he kept shaking his head, saying “That’s not the point. That’s not it at all.”

“It” was that blasted letter. Now that it had arrived, it was driving him crazy. He had spent the last fifteen years thinking that Khushbu had betrayed him by marrying someone else, that she had quailed at the first sign of conflict, that she did not fight for her love. Now he knew that she too thought the same—that Suhail had betrayed her, that he did not want to fight her family.

“The last time you were in Ranipur,” I reminded him, “the Rawats thrashed you senseless and left you to die in the nullah.”

Suhail shrugged.

“They’d still do it,” I said. “Things aren’t better around here.”

Suhail just shrugged again. By now Shahryar had returned with jalebis, masala milk and kachoris from Chunnu Halwai’s. I told him to drive some sense into our idiot cousin but I should have known better.

“Lucky I had your forwarding address,” was all he said. “When the letter was delivered, I didn’t even see who it was from. I just sent it off to you. It reached too! Imagine! Isn’t that a miracle? I mean, given your gypsy ways. Nobody knows how to reach you. But what is intended…” Shahryar was careful not to look at me as he said, “Perhaps this is what Maula intended.”

I wanted to find the nearest door and bang my head against it. But I picked up a kachori instead and bit in.

“Just what I needed early in the morning on a Sunday. One drunk atheist and one impractical Sufi. Why don’t you unroll the janamaaz and ask Maula what He wants, since you appear to have a direct line to him?”

But Shahryar was unfazed. “Maula doesn’t speak directly. He has angels to do His work.”

I harrumphed. It’s a standing joke between us—whenever I take on a case that I’m sure to lose and the client cannot afford my fees, Shahryar touches my feet and calls me an angel.

“I won’t do it,” I said. “The court will throw it out in a minute. There is no case.”

“Listen,” he pressed on. “I took a chakkar of the post office before I came here. The new clerk, his name is Girish, he told me that he found this letter at the bottom of a drawer. It was inside the desk occupied by his predecessor.”

“So?”

“Can you guess who this predecessor might be?”

I closed my eyes and thought of the Ranipur post office. Most of us had been going to the post office since we learnt to walk. We knew the names of most of the clerks and postmen. I remembered one particular desk, one particularly scowly face.

“No!”

“Yes. Banwarilal Rawat. Uncle of Khushbu Rawat. He retired last month. Forgot to clear out his desk properly.”

So that is how I ended up arguing Suhail Rizvi vs India Post. Usually, the postal department is protected from litigation in the event of a delay or a loss of posted material. But if you can prove that a letter or parcel was held back on purpose, you have a chance to claim damages.

I did warn Suhail that we would most likely lose the suit. Suing government departments is not for two-bit mofussil advocates like me. Land disputes and petty theft is what I do. Besides, he would never get R100 crore. Indian courts do not award such sums even in cases of murder or industrial accidents or medical negligence. It’s unheard of.

But Suhail would not be discouraged. “Win or lose, I’m going to make you a rich woman,” he said. “You won’t need to stand outside the courthouse any more, pimping yourself.”

I smacked him on the face then, and told him that if he tried to throw money at me, I’d throw him out of my house. As it is, he had quit his job. I would have to feed him until…

Only Maula knew how long this would drag on. But I wasn’t doing it for money. I was doing it for family. And pride. And nation.

While I prepared my lawsuit, Suhail paced. My husband begged him to have mercy upon our carpet. It was the only expensive item from my dowry. But secretly, we were both relieved. At least he wasn’t drinking. When he didn’t pace, he slept. Sometimes I caught him staring hard at the phone. But I had strictly warned him not to try anything funny. I wanted to petition on behalf of an upright, aggrieved citizen, not a stalker harassing a married mother of two.

On a foggy Friday morning, Suhail and I took a cycle-rickshaw to the court. We sat in my chamber, drinking cups of tea. The stench of urine hung heavy in the winter air. We hardly spoke, and when we did it was only to gossip about the extended Rizvi clan. The judge wouldn’t arrive for another hour.

My neighbours Mishra-ji and Pande-ji were in their usual spot near the main gate. The chamber they shared was the one nearest the toilet, and they couldn’t bear to sit there for more than five minutes at a time. Besides, they needed to accost hapless folk summoned to the court who had no lawyer yet. “Foremost in the service of the poor” was their motto, they liked to say, and they hated my beef-eating guts because poor clients sometimes came looking for me, asking for me by name.

Mishra-ji and Pande-ji were looking at me that day, fake morning smiles smeared on their paan-stained mouths, but they didn’t come up to talk. They didn’t seem curious about Suhail. He looked too scruffy to be worth much as a client.

I wondered what Mishra-ji and Pande-ji would say if they knew of our suit. “Cheap publicity stunt.” That I was expecting. There was also the religion angle to worry about. Ranipur is not the kind of place where you can take it lightly. There are more takers for religion than for law and order or human rights. We expected death threats. Witnesses could turn hostile.

I had managed to put the fear of the law into Manoj, the postman who had delivered the letter to our house, and also Girish, the clerk who found the letter. They tried to say they didn’t know anything about anything. But I said that we had secretly recorded the conversations and they would be jailed for perjury if they lied in court. Besides, they only had to accuse Rawat, not India Post. They ought to be proud. The state would be proud of them, I said. But I was lying through my teeth. The state would probably punish them. The Rawats certainly would.

That morning, my hands were shaking. Suhail clasped my hands between his and smiled his old smile—the smile of understanding and humility and protection and a hundred other good things. When you saw that smile, you knew why a girl had been willing to fight family, caste, religion, Ranipur, all of India. That smile beckons to the truest part of you. It refuses to see how weak you are, how narrow your interests.

I pulled his beard and tossed back my head. “You have to get presentable. Now just pray that the judge doesn’t throw us out with a fine for wasting his time.”

Then I filed the case, and in the following weeks, this happened:

– Judge Sharad Tripathi called me to ask: “What’s this drama?”

– Mishra-ji and Pande-ji spread rumours that my brother was in town to take revenge by sullying the Rawat clan’s honour.

– Five local reporters called on my mobile phone, then on the landline at home. When I refused to talk to them, they parked themselves outside the house.

– The clerk leaked our petition to one reporter. The details of the case were on the front page of Savera then, and also every time we had a court hearing afterwards.

– Advocate Khan came down from Allahabad to represent India Post. He mentioned vexatious intent, frivolous waste of nation’s time, etcetera. I smacked him down with Section 6, Indian Post Office Act, 1898.

– I put Manoj and Girish on the stand.

– Banwarilal Rawat had been coached by Khan, but he was still a blubbering mess when he took the stand. I practically ate him for breakfast.

– Khushbu’s father, Maninder Rawat, was in the courtroom, right at the back. He looked like he wanted to murder me.

– Judge Tripathi admitted the petition.

– Shahryar bought balushahi from Chunnu’s to celebrate. While we were eating it, somebody threw stones at our house and four windows were shattered. Suhail and Shahryar kept vigil all night. At dawn, a rock came through my bedroom window. A piece of paper was crumpled around the stone. It said: “Muslim whore.”

– Shahryar went to the police station. The inspector kept him there for three hours, asking questions like why did he marry a cousin, because didn’t that make him a sisterfucker?

– A local TV crew took up residence outside our house. I refused an interview. I tripped over a tripod. They ran footage of me falling flat on my face.

– A women’s group came to my chamber to “request” rather “strongly” that I withdraw the case in solidarity with my “Indian sisters.”

Then, there was a lull. Judge Tripathi had asked me to justify the lawsuit. I had sought compensation for mental torture and loss of happiness. By preventing my client from marrying his beloved, Banwarilal Rawat had cheated him of hope, peace and fulfilment. So, the usual questions arose: Who can guarantee hope or happiness? How much happiness? Each minute of each day? Would every single night bring pleasure? Should the law care?

I argued that the law seems to care in cases of divorce. Wives are awarded alimony even if the husband did not prevent the wife from pursuing a career. Even if he did not want a child, he must pay for child support. The law assumes that people have a right to compensation when a marriage breaks down because we do invest in each other’s lives and happiness. Marriage is a contract with serious human consequences. Therefore, a fraud that results in the absence of a good marriage is a serious crime.

I summoned some of Suhail and Khushbu’s college friends to tell their story—hundreds of happy, fearless days; their trust that their families would come around; Khushbu’s desperate letters, begging to be rescued from her family.

Without any prompting on my part, a witness told the court: “If these two people could not find happiness with each other, then there is no hope for happiness and peace in the world.” I was literally licking my lips with satisfaction.

Advocate Khan began to say that even if all this was true, the fault lay with social norms. “Our own cultural values have prompted clerk Rawat to act as, allegedly, he may—or may not—have acted. Why should the innocent taxpayers pay for this?”

“If society causes damage to the individual, then society must pay the price,” I retorted.

Khan argued that this love-happiness argument was a tacky fantasy, a bad joke. I retorted that only those who experience marriage as a bad joke could make such an argument.

And so it went on until, finally, I put Suhail on the stand. He had shaved that day and was almost good-looking again. I kept looking around the room, worried that somebody would throw a knife, or fire a gun. Ranipur is not the kind of place where a man can say he loves a woman, not if she’s from another community. Definitely not if she’s married.

The police had finally relented and given us protection. But so far, the police constable who was on duty at our house had done little except eat plentifully, doze, and read aloud the letters that had begun to pour in for us. Yellow postcards, blue inlands, gauze-wrapped parcels, registered letters—India Post was doing a fine job these days. It was from one of these letters that I got my next big argument.

One M Kanji, a retired forest officer, had written about his own experience of love and parental control. While he was still in service, he had adopted an orphaned female baboon; he called her Meenakshi. He had held her in his lap when she was a baby, fed her with a tiny milk bottle. He’d let her sleep in a cradle next to his bed. He had trained her well. She wore frilly frocks, sat at the dining table and used cutlery to eat like a little lady. She could hold a pencil to “write.” She could even brush her own teeth. In short, she was the pride and joy of his old heart.

One day, a male langur got into the house, and though he bared his teeth and broke some glassware, young Meenakshi appeared to be more smitten than scared. Old Kanji did his best to beat off the animal, first using a stick and then firing an air gun. But though he ran off that day, again and again, the langur returned. And each time, Meenakshi was pleased to see him.

How could Meenakshi bear this ugly stranger? Kanji simply didn’t understand the attraction; it wasn’t even a baboon but a langur! What was his little flower thinking? Besides, she’d never survive in the wild. Where was the toilet? What about toothpaste? His baby did not even eat bananas without peeling them first like a lady. How could he hand her over to this feral animal?

Kanji swore that he would not let Meenakshi run wild. He would find her a suitable mate when the time was right. But she was only a teenager (in baboon years) and didn’t yet know what was best for her. So he locked her up in the house.

Soon, Meenakshi stopped eating. The lack of sunshine and trees to climb was making her ill. The vet advised that she needed to be out in the open air. So Kanji put her in a cage and suspended it from an old banyan in his backyard. At night, he would drag out a cot and a blanket for himself and he’d sleep outdoors, next to her cage.

The langur returned, of course. Kanji began to fire the air gun at him. But he was no longer frightened. Even when he was injured, this sturdy male hung around. He began to bring other langur friends to visit. They offered fruit, even sweets, which they must have stolen from the tiny hilltop temple inside the forest. Meenakshi accepted the gifts rather sweetly. She sulked when Kanji took them away from her.

Then Meenakshi went on hunger strike again. At night, when the monkey came to visit her, she would just lie in a corner of the cage. The langur would be mad with anger. He’d rattle the cage with all his strength and then he’d make piteous crying noises.

Finally, Kanji opened the cage door and went inside the house. As he lay in his bedroom, he heard the langur arrive. He heard the cage swing, followed by a soft thud. He heard a scratching at his window but he did not raise his head to look. The next morning, he went out. The cage was empty. Meenakshi had made her choice.

I immediately wrote to Kanji to come and tell the story in Ranipur. On the back of it, I could argue that even monkeys know one simple truth—no happiness is possible outside of love. This led to the following:

–  Kanji became a national celebrity for a week.

– Someone filed a counter-case in Allahabad, accusing me of insulting all Rawats by comparing them to baboons.

– An editor in Allahabad wrote an editorial in which he called me a baboon.

– There were cartoons in the papers about a monster chimp called Suhail who liked to abduct human girls.

– We got letters saying my family was full of uncivilised animals but what else could be expected from the descendants of Taimur and Ghazni?

– Sahryar went into a frenzy of writing letters to newspaper editors about the history of Islam in the subcontinent. Only one was published.

– Our constable got hurt on protection duty. The windshield of our car was shattered by a stone. He got three stitches.

– Judge Tripathi decided that the question could not be settled without hearing from the other side. Khushbu Rawat would have to testify.

– Khushbu Rawat’s dough-faced mother came to our house and begged me to think about the reputation of my “sister.” She called me “daughter.”

The date for the hearing was three weeks later. It was supposed to give us time to summon the witness but all the lawyers knew that it was actually because Tripathi-ji had already booked a family holiday to Nainital. Also, all the lawyers knew that Khushbu could simply “fail” to receive the summons. Since this was a civil case, it would be very hard to make her to appear in court against her will. Without her testimony, we could not prove that she had ever been in love with the petitioner.

For three weeks, Ranipur held its breath. Everybody had an opinion, and they expressed themselves in this manner:

– The cycle rickshaw puller who often takes me to the courthouse gave me a long lecture on being content with one’s lot in life.

– Chunnu Halwai delivered a soliloquy on misery within the institution of marriage while we waited for him to wrap up our pyaaz ki kachoris.

– My neighbour dropped off a pamphlet about the Radhasoami sect. She advised Suhail to immerse himself in devotional love in order to attain true bliss.

– A group of undergraduate students from Ranipur City College got into a heated debate about love and parental control. The owner of the college canteen threatened to complain to their parents. They beat him up. He went to the police to complain.

– The newspapers ran opinion polls about “happiness in marriage.”

– A talk show on TV invited psychologists to explain the sources of happiness and the difficulty of monetising it.

– A twice-widowed woman called Naushi sent a marriage proposal to Suhail via an open letter in the newspaper.

– Sukhdev Baba came to town for a satsang. He delivered a sermon about love and marriage being two separate concepts. He said we must love everyone equally.

– Khan gave an interview saying that lawyers like me ought to be fined heavily for wasting the nation’s time and resources.

– Suhail got ambushed when he was out for a walk. His face was rubbed with cow dung. He was garlanded with old shoes.

– Achhi Khala came to visit and begged us to withdraw the case. When Suhail refused, she bawled and beat her own head with a shoe.

– Umesh Tiwari, Khushbu’s husband, was hospitalised after a minor stroke.

What were the chances that we’d be able to drag Khushbu to court? I should not say “drag,” though, because the truth is that she had already come to court once, without being summoned. She probably wanted to catch a glimpse of Suhail. She would have understood by now that there had been no betrayal, except by her own family. She must have heard that Suhail was still crazy about her.

But this was in the early days, before Suhail’s face was known to many people. The courthouse was littered with journalists, lawyers and curious good-for-nothings, so it was easy for her to melt into the crowd. A burqa-clad figure entered after the hearing started and sat at the back of the room. Suhail says that his heart started hammering; the back of his neck prickled. He looked over his shoulder and saw a veiled figure. He went round to the back and sat down next to her.

When she stood up and left the room, he followed her. On a deserted staircase, she drew back the veil and slapped him on the face. She said that he was destroying her peace of mind. She said that she was now Sunita Tiwari, and he could never have her.

After this incident, I had few hopes that she would take the stand. In two days, the family would disappear into some discreet corner of the country and wait for the noise to die down. If she did accept the summons and showed up in court, she’d say that she was happily married, that her parents had been right to do as they did. But this did not happen.

On the day of the hearing, Advocate Khan informed the court that Mrs Rawat was not in Ranipur, but her father was present and he had a letter from her. But while he was speaking, a woman wearing a burqa stood up. She walked to the front and quietly took her place in the witness stand.

I was giggling hysterically, partly out of sheer relief and partly because of Khan’s reaction. The crowd understood—this was “her.” A susurration went down the rows. Yet Khan went on babbling his lies. By the time he understood what had happened, the whole room was laughing. Someone tried to take a photograph on his phone. Judge Tripathi exploded. He banged his gavel and ordered the police to throw out everyone who was carrying a cell phone.

Then I questioned Khushbu and she told the truth. Khan cross-examined. He asked if she could have been happy in a marriage that her family strongly disapproved of. She said yes.

He asked, “But are you not happy now?”

There was pindrop silence in the room. Khan repeated the question. After a long pause, Khushbu answered. “In our society, we choose duty over happiness. In fact, we do not choose. It is taken for granted that everyone else’s choice will be our choice. In other words, there is no choice. It is my duty to make others happy.”

So, we won the day. But winning the day is not the same as winning a case. I still had to prove to the court that my client was justified in suing India Post for loss of happiness. And what price happiness?

My client, meanwhile, seemed to have lost interest in his own case. After all, Khushbu had vindicated him. But her family left Ranipur immediately after the hearing. Now Suhail went about looking like a deflated balloon. If I woke up in the middle of the night and peeped into the guest room, I’d find him sitting up, staring out of the window. He smoked endlessly. He no longer paced. My cook threatened to quit, saying that she could not bear to look at his sad face.

Shahryar suggested that we withdraw the case, or settle for nominal compensation. But I flew into a rage. To go through all this only to withdraw when I was so close to winning? Oh no! I was going to fight this through to the end.

But the fight was going the other way now. One day, Khan turned to face the crowd assembled in the courtroom. He asked for a show of hands: “Who can claim to be happily married? Who is hundred-percent happy?”

No hands were raised. Not one. How could I prove that Suhail was not like other men? I did argue that some people kill themselves rather than live without love. Judge Tripathi was willing to accept my argument but, in a bizarre twist of logic, he decided to look at legal precedent for compensation paid to families for dead sons—young, educated sons who were expected to support the family.

I argued that you cannot reduce a person’s life to the size of the pay cheque he might bring home. But Judge Tripathi pointed his gavel at me and said, “Enough! Your client has asked for money. So the court will naturally measure out his life in money.”

What the court awarded us was R612,500, plus legal expenses. An economist, a social scientist, and a psychiatrist from Delhi were consulted. They made a calculation based on how much a male engineer’s income was likely to be affected if he was not married or particularly motivated over fifteen years. They referred to some foreign research paper about emotional security. They worked out a percentage increase in income as a result of emotional well-being, then they added medication costs in case of depression, and deducted from the whole amount a percentage loss that may have occurred due to marital discord. It came to R612,500, apparently.

That was small change for the postal service. They could have sneezed it out without a sniffle of regret if they chose to pay rather than appeal. Even Rawat, the retired clerk, could easily pay off this sum and he wouldn’t even need to sell off one of his ancestral fields. Nobody was really put out, in short, except me. My shattered windows, my damaged car, so many nights spent worrying about our safety. What was the bloody point?

I sulked for days, and threatened to go up to the High Court. My husband knows these black moods of mine. Whenever I lose a case, I’m like this. He makes sure there is a box of barfi from Chunnu’s in the fridge, and he stays out of my way as much as he can.

As for Suhail, one freezing night he went out for a walk and did not return for over two hours. Shahryar and I took the car out. The windshield was still missing. In the blinding fog, we drove around, stopping to peer into ditches and garbage dumps. Did the Rawats get their hands on him? Or was it the Tiwaris?

When we found him, he was sitting outside the boundary wall of the Shia graveyard, holding a bottle wrapped in brown paper. He hadn’t started drinking yet. He was just sitting there. When he saw us, he put down the bottle, stood up and quietly got into the car. The next morning, he told us he had found a job. In Africa.

“Don’t be an idiot,” I said. “Who goes to Africa? Go to Dubai. There’s so much construction work there. What’s wrong with Dubai?”

He just shook his stubborn head. I knew from the look on his face that it was no use trying to dissuade him, but I persisted.

“Africa is so far. And it’s such a poor country.”

“It’s a continent,” he said.

I rolled my eyes and argued for the rest of the day, but it was only for the sake of having something to say to him. Shahryar and I decided to drive him down to Delhi. We didn’t want him to take the train alone. Besides, we too needed to get away from Ranipur.

We went to Suhail’s mother’s house and she did her own share of weeping. She made her son promise that he would not marry a black woman in Africa. But a week later, she softened. He could marry a black woman if she was a Muslim. The week after that, she bent further. She said he could marry any kind of woman if it made him happy.

Suhail refused to say a single word on the subject of women. Achhi Khala sighed and called upon Maula for help. She wanted to live long enough to see grandchildren. But once the subject turned to children, attention was deflected towards me. I had been expecting it to happen for two weeks, so I gritted my teeth and kept a smile on for the rest of our stay.

At the airport, we asked Suhail to call us, keep us posted, take care of himself. He nodded. But we knew he wouldn’t do it. Afterwards, I asked my husband if we’d ever see Suhail again. I had only meant that he might not want to return to India, but Shahryar scolded me for having such thoughts, and then he burst into tears. What do you do with these Rizvi men?

Nearly a month passed before we returned to Ranipur. I unlocked the front door, and there it was—a letter lying on the floor. My husband picked it up. It was addressed to Suhail Rizvi, c/o Sheeba Rizvi, and at the back had the initials KR.

Shahryar waited just long enough to dump our bags inside the house and then he was out again.

“What?” I called out. “Where are you going?”

He didn’t answer but I knew. He was going to the post office.

About  The Story Love,more than any other human emotion, makes us imagine a world different from the one we know. Mostly this vision of perfection looks to the future, but in Annie Zaidi’s story, it looks to the past. Fifteen years after his lover married another man, the protagonist, Suhail, receives a letter she had sent him with a plan for elopement. The letter draws him from the new life he has made for himself back to the small town where he first dreamt of happiness with his beloved. His return creates a tumult, and the town becomes both audience and actor in the case lodged on his behalf in the local court by his spirited cousin, the lawyer Sheeba.

The story, told from Sheeba’s perspective, breaks repeatedly into entertaining interludes in which a range of reactions from around the town—and all around India—are described without comment. No one can resist opining on the relationship between love and marriage, self and society, past and present. What will come of this for Suhail? And will his old flame, the long-married Khushbu Rawat, reveal her own mind? Zaidi’s story is a fine example of fiction’s capacity for polyphony and moral inquiry.

 

Registered Post

ANNIE ZAIDI

 

It was 7.30 in the morning and my alarm hadn’t gone off when Suhail showed up. I was still in my nightie when the bell rang and I was just looking for a dupatta to throw over my chest. But Shahryar said he’d get the door, so I settled back into bed.

A whole minute passed. The silence outside was making me nervous. Nobody who comes to our door in this town leaves without saying a word or two, even if it is just salaam, ram-ram, or I’llshowyoubitchjustwatch. Milkman, postman, courier, goons sent by the other party after I’ve had a good day in court. Everybody has something to say. Besides, Shahryar always says something when he answers the door. I usually wait to hear the click of the door before I call out to ask who it was.

I called out now but there was no reply. So I rolled off the bed and ran barefoot to the front door. And there he was—Suhail. He was dragging a backpack into the drawing room while Shahryar tried to wrest it from his hands so he could carry it indoors himself. Scruffier than I thought possible, although Achhi Khala did send us a photo after his last visit home. I’d thought even then that this must be the scruffiest engineer on the planet. Bearded, greying, shabby in those stained jeans and a jacket that looked like he’d picked it up cheap at some Tibetan market. Even his smile was kind of shabby.

Shahryar made the morning coffee as usual, and took the joke manfully when Suhail clapped him on the back and said I had trained him well. Then he stepped out, mumbling about ‘Sunday Special’ breakfast. When the sound of the scooter faded into the morning quiet, I turned to my cousin.

“Fifteen years, huh?”

Suhail was staring into his coffee mug. I poked a finger into his side playfully but regretted it at once. I could feel his ribs through the jacket. I slurped up my coffee noisily, and wondered if I shouldn’t just ask him outright and be done with it.

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Annie Zaidi is the author of Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales and the co-author of The Bad Boys Guide to the Good Indian Girl. She writes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and scripts and currently lives in Mumbai.

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