Maridah places herself on the couch with Dr. Bakshi sitting across the other end of the table separating them. Zainab Abidi, her mother, is on her right and Maqsood Abidi, her father, on her left. Dr. Bakshi is a doctor of recognition that he bagged owing to his unwavering toil and hard work in the field of psychology over the years.
“Maridah, how are you today? The morning’s been pleasant, hasn’t it?” he asked the 20-year old girl.
Maridah lowers her neck upon being questioned and twitches displaying obvious shyness. She clutches Zainab’s dupatta and puts immense force into overcoming the timidity that has seized her for past many years. Reaching parallel to her chin, the show of her small thumb expresses how she felt that fine morning. Her thumb is withdrawn almost immediately followed by a short-lived, yet lively chuckle.
Dr. Bakshi and Maridah spend a good couple of hours talking and laughing, costing Maridah’s father a lump sum of Rs.800 and a major fraction of peace in his life. He catches and occasional fierce glance at Zainab and curses under his breath. Zainab, on the other hand, adjusts her burqa to assure to hide the marks of Maqsood’s cruelty on her face, her hands and all over the body.
Every time Maridah visits Dr. Bakshi, she returns home a million times happier than she ever was.
“Aapa, see what I made for you- this pink handkerchief. Don’t wipe the dirt flowing from the nose with the new clothes that Ammi buys. Here, use this.” Junaid, Zainab and Maqsood’s only son after 7 daughters, tells his elder sister with apparent glee and excitement in his childish voice.
Maridah is Maqsood’s only daughter who is left to be married off. However, it seemed only harder and harder to find a match for her, let alone a perfect match. No one likes to take home a responsibility and not a wife. Maridah’s autism could cause her ending up alone in this world without a Mahram, her Abba always feared. For Zainab’s fault, he has the devil to pay.
A week passed and another since her last meeting with Dr. Bakshi. Maqsood has already warned Zainab against taking Maridah there. He did not want an extra penny of his to go in vain, for Maridah’s illness seemed incurable. It is the cause of all of Maqsood’s vexation.
Then comes a Tuesday morning, and with it comes a letter.
“Zainab jaan, come on here. Rasheed has accepted our proposal of marriage. Maridah will lead a life of dignity henceforth.”Maqsood roars out loud.
Zainab congratulates him while the grievous expressions spread on her face. She catches a glance at her little daughter who hasn’t even outgrown her age of a toddler as it seemed. But, she is helpless; she has to agree with what her shauhar said.
Maridah is playing away from her 6-year old little brother, Juniad in the veranda; solacing herself; not a tad aware of the change that shall befall her with the grace of her own dear father.
“Maridah jaan, come here.”Zainab calls her daughter not to let a moment of her precious time with her slip by.
She caresses her head, as Maridah sucks in her teeth her lower lip. Blinks her eyes ten times a second. Scratches the back of her ear. And then, repeats the whole process. Zainab is looking at her daughter admiringly, as though for the last time.
‘Has she gotten into womanhood? Would she be able to take the responsibility of a family? What if she falters? Will the Rasheed person beat her? My little angel, will you be able to suffice all this? I will ask your abba to postpone the wedding for a while. Yes, I will.’ Such runs Zainab’s train of thought that was interrupted by Maqsood’s untimely entry in the room.
“Maridah jaan.” He says as he put her hands on both the sides of her head. “Here shall go the dupatta. And here the earrings.” He touches her ears. In years, Maridah has had never experienced a slight brush of her father’s hand and now there he was- touching her, her entire body. She spasmodically shakes his hand off, gets out of the chair she was sitting in and blinks her eyes the speed of light. She begins to brush the areas of her body that felt that unusual touch and hugged her mother tight. She knew Maqsood. He was no stranger to her, but the touch certainly was. She clumsily jerked her mother’s hand and went out.
“Who is the groom?” Zainab questions his husband
“I have told you about it. He is a businessman- housed and propertied. Worry not. Your beti shall be happy as never before.”
“How old is he?”
“Um.. Does that really matter?”
Maqsood widens his eyes as though scaring the hell out of his wife to not to ask the question again. However, he answered her, for there was nothing she could do, handcuffed by her husband’s commands.
“He is fifty.”
“What? You are marrying my Maridah off to a man who is almost your age? What kind of a father are you?”
“My Maridah…. my Maridah. Enough. No one is ready to take an autistic girl for a wife. Thank Allah that he was generous enough to send this man as a Messiah. So what if he is fifty? He will take good care of Maridah and he doesn’t demand much Mehr, dowry, too.” Shrieking he goes out of the room, slamming the door behind him shut.
Gloomy preparations for the wedding begin; everyone is running errands and making necessary changes. Time slips by and now Zainab covers Maridah’s head with the red dupatta she bought her the other day for her big day. The hall’s lit up, the guests have arrived and Rasheed alights from the horse. He is looking for a girl, who does not know he exists, or the story that has brought him here. He has no reasons to be discreet but still he has to be careful. He is standing near the doorway and surveying the golden banquet hall, which is filled with refined bodies in saris and jackets, and beautiful young women with straight hair who never make facial expressions. But they will, soon. Any moment now. Enters the bride, her face all concealed, not because she’s shy, but because she’s autistic. The wedding bells ring, the rites are performed and the girl turns into a bride.
Maridah is married. Zainab’s little girl is a wife. Rasheed’s wife. Asifa, Shabeer, Aadil and Zafreen’s new mother. A mother barely a year older than her children.
Throughout her journey to Rasheed’s house, not once does Maridah list her head. Her lehnga soaked her tears that fell ten times a minute. She looks at the dark night longingly, rolling her eyes, pointing at an object and another lubberly. She is placed on Rasheed’s bed with the help of Rasheed’s wrinkled sisters. She wraps her hands around her knees as she folds her legs to reach her chin. Covered in a dupatta, she is whiling beneath. Where was Zainab, her mother? Had she ever slept alone, without her? No, never. She clicks a drop or two of tears off her fingers that fell on her hands. She is haunted. The newness of the room is frightening. The smell of the scent is engulfing and the thoughts running in her head are depressing. She rolls her eyes, looks around the darkness. She scratches a louse out of her hair and scratches harder. She is feeling tired and exhausted with all the grief and crying, and in a matter of a few seconds, she falls asleep only to let the reality dawn upon her in the morning. Maridah opens her eyes as a ray of sunshine peeks inside the room. She blinks her eyes ten times a second and rubs her eyes to gain complete vision. To her astonishment, she had slept alone; however, she is not waking up alone. There is a hand. A manly hand. A hand on her breast. A hand on her naked breast. And another hand. A manly hand on her belly. She snuck a glance inside the blanket. She was naked beside a man. Naked. She had never been in the shape of nature in front of anybody, but her mother. Not even her father, brother or any of her sisters. She screams shaking the hand off her body. She gets out of the bed and wetted the floor with the tears that rolled down. She scratches her head. Bemused. She starts blinking her eyes to let a tear and another escape.
Rasheed is now woken up by the scream. He is furious. He covers Maridah with a blanket and dresses himself up. He clutches Maridah by the hand and that is when she shouts even louder impulsively. What next? He slaps her. Hard. Everything was numb for a moment and another that followed. Slap? Had anyone slapped her before? No. Zainab? No. Maqsood? No. Well, he never got near her. Was this the starting of a married life? Meaninglessness. Helplessness. Perhaps. She twitches a spasm and sucks in her lips. Hands on her eyes, then cheeks. She begins to explore her body. Her hand travels across thigh to the feet as she sits down in frantic efforts to clean the very essence of Rasheed from her body.
“What is with you?” he questioned Maridah.
Rasheed stared at his wife while she chose the marble floor to leer at. She sobbed and fell in the lap of the earth.
Over the next couple of days, Rasheed could finally discover what was wrong with Maridah. He has already started feeling betrayed in this young marriage and decides to file for a divorce.
“Maridah. Come we have to go.” Rasheed commands her.
Maridah jaan was busy cutting gourd into irregular lopsided pieces to make the tarkari for lunch. She had the assistance of her youngest step-daughter, Zafreen.
“Abbu jaan, chhoti ammi is busy hel…” Zafreen struggled to say, but Rasheed has already clutched Maridah by her hand. She has become quite used to the feeling of Rasheed’s rough tusk. Or maybe it doesn’t really matter to her at that moment. That specific moment, she is not feeling well. Something is just not okay. Not right. She twitches her lips, puts her finger in the mouth, not once looking at Rasheed. The next moment, she pukes. On him. He was all enraged. Red with fury. But, the presence of Zafreen helped Maridah reach the hospital.
“The girl is pregnant.” The doctor declared.
Maridah is lying on the bed, unconscious with the sedative popped into her. Rasheed goes out to break the news to Zafreen. He then declares that he would be heading out to file the divorce, for his decision was abysmal.
“Kuna Rahimana… Abbu she is pregnant. How would you feel if Amir jaan leaves me whilst I have your grandchild in my womb? Please have mercy. Her parents would be shattered.”
“Zafreen jaan, I don’t understand. Why the devil are you comparing yourself with that crazy psychopath? You are a gem. Amir jaan is so lucky to have you as his Begum.” He replied politely, a rather exceptional tone for a man of cruelty.
For a daughter is a father’s weakness and strength, Rasheed agrees with Zafreen and goes home with Maridah. Maridah runs with hands loosely dancing on her shoulders occasionally getting hurt by the walls and objects nearby. At last she reaches her destination. A far nook away from the house. Its things. Its people. An hour passed and another until anyone could find her finding solace in the calm and placid place of comfort in her sleep.
“Maridah. Maridah.” Comes Rasheed looking for the girl.
The harsh voice wakes Maridah from her sleep. She rubs her eyes with one hand and clutches Rasheed’s hand with the other. She twitches her lips and raises the little finger of her left hand to indicate her urgent urge to urinate.
Rasheed feels embarrassed. Maridah catches a short glance at the man through the corner of her eye. She is scared but helpless. Rasheed helps her to the bathroom, loosens her robe and let her in. He waits outside until he hears her weeping.
“Maridah. What happened? Are you okay?” He holds and caresses her shoulder which she shakes off in a trice. He knew the reason.
“Ammi……” she cried in a monotone, grasping her belly as though she was trying to reach out to Zainab for help to cure the pain she was in. It is a catastrophe. Rasheed learns the gravity of the situation and calls out for Zafreen. Unfortunately, there was no one around.
“Maridah.” he said.
She looked up at him. Lips stretched towards the chin and hands untangling their fingers.
Rasheed gestures her to get up without touching her and walks to the door. Whilst he walks past her, she clutches his kurta and struggles to get up. One hand on her belly yet. They reach the threshold of the bedroom, Maridah stumbling a million times in the way and making an occasional huff out of her mouth when she lost control.
She rushes to the bed and places herself on it. Rasheed gives her a pill to be gorged in. She does not do that and leers at him for instructions. He picks up a glass of water and pretends to pop in a pill and drinks water. She imitates, better than a monkey. A hand on her belly yet. She stretches her tongue out of her mouth to show utter disgust caused by the pill on her palate. Rasheed joins his thumb and the index finger in an O and stretches out the other fingers. Maridah lowers her neck avoiding making eye contact and grins to bestow her approval. Rasheed is a father before the birth of their child.
Four months passed, Maridah begins welcoming the changes in her body, which were loathed by her in the initial days. She begins to caress, moving her hand over her belly. Bigger belly that gained size every day. The frequent visits to Dr. Parul have already started becoming familiar and soothing. Every member in the family is heeding to her presence. She loves the care and attention. Zainab pays visits to her daughter more often than ever. Life is good. Rasheed seems a rather good man. He helps her change. He helps her eat. He helps her get up, walk and even sleep. Both the souls are growing into each other’s hearts. They are feeling love and being loved.
Nine months have passed. Maridah’s world is going to change. Yes, soon it will. Any moment now.
“Maridah jaan… Maridah jaan... Where are you? Here, have your lunch. Aah it smells real good… this oatmeal.” Rasheed calls out. He finds Zafreen combing Maridah’s hair. Maridah is looking at the floor with eyes waiting for something great to happen. She frequently shakes her head to bounce off Zafreen’s hand.
Rasheed puts the dish in front of her. She stares at it for a while, then picks up the spoon in a lopsided manner and puts it in her mouth, most of the meal tripping down her black dress over her belly wherein a life is growing. After, a bite or two she twitches her lips and rolls her eyes. Rasheed looks at her. The eyes he donned belong more to a father than a husband, though. Suddenly, Maridah passes out. Rasheed rushed to the hospital.
The day of truth has arrived. The day of revelation. Maridah is inside the operation theatre. She is in pain inside and Rasheed outside. His frantic movements across the hall are becoming fast until the doctor comes out of the room. He stops.
“It’s a girl.” The doctor declared. The announcement filled every one with happiness only to shatter them the next second.
“However, the mother is no more.”
Everything stopped for a moment. Earth seemed to have come to a standstill. Numbness followed next.
Rasheed is taken aback. Zainab’s world has shattered. Is the moment a reality?
Zainab holds Rasheed by the collar and accuses him for pressurizing her daughter. But, it is only Rasheed who can feel his love for Maridah; no other soul could ever be capable to feel the engulfing grief in his heart.
“Could we see her?”He asked.
“My Maridah… Allah. He killed my jaan. Rasheed every evil of this world may befall you.” Zainab said.
Rasheed is now filled with guilt more than grief. The mere sight of dead Maridah runs shivers down his spine. He goes near Maridah and let a drop of his tear fall down on her cheek. It is in a million years that ferocious eyes like Rasheed’s water. It is in a million years that a heart like Rasheed’s melts.
He picks up the little angel sleeping beside her dead mother in his arms. He is elated. The little nose on her face belonged to Maridah, he thought. The big beautiful eyes belonged to him.
He said to her, “They say I killed your Ammi. No. It is her who has gone leaving a dead soul inside a man who you shall call your naanujaan. You shall, from now, be called Arf-e-Maridah, the very essence of my Maridah.”
Rasheed went out to break his decision to Zafreen, “Zafreen jaan, I beg of you to keep Arfa with you and Amir jaan as your daughter. I shall always be happy to be her Naanujaan. Maridah was a young soul. I don’t want the posterity to follow the tales of Maridah. She was a pure soul. I would want her to live in the hearts that she blossomed to life. I don’t want my memories of Maridah to be tainted in any way whatsoever.” He said handing the little creature over to her daughter. The irrevocable decision of the Almighty was accepted by Rasheed and Zafreen. Little Arfa gave a short-lived yet lively chuckle when she glanced at her Abba jaan. Naanujaan, rather.