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11 mins 412 11 mins 412

“By plucking her petals you do not gather the beauty of the flower.”

― Rabindranath Tagore

A grim silence had descended over the neighbourhood on a cold winter morning as a fifty year old woman’s screeching wails pierced the sky. Khadija held her only child tightly to her bosom and rocked back and forth, looking up to the heavens, cursing as many Gods as she could remember. Kareem sat in the corner of his girl’s bedroom, clutching his knees, watching his wife and lifeless child in silent despair. Kareem’s brothers stood silently as their wives attempted to calm Khadija down but in vain. The old shed quiet tears while the young sniffled at a distance. Men and women in skull-caps and burqas stood outside the house, whispering lightly.

By sundown, shrouded in white, Fatimah would be resting in the burial grounds at the edge of the little town. In a few days, the neighbourhood would proceed to gradually forget her and move on. In a few weeks, the family would fondly, with a pinch of salt, remember Fatimah while they got busy with their lives. In a few months, Kareem would surrender his girl’s fate to the will of Allah and dive nose deep into community and religious work. And, Khadija? As her daughter went off to a better place, Khadija was left to revise the chapters of her life.

Seemingly lifeless on the outside, Khadija spent her days mulling over the last conversation she had with her nineteen year old girl, engulfed in guilt, self-hatred and a multitude of questions.

"But, does Krishnan love you for who you are?", she had asked her daughter.

"Yes, Ammi! Yes, he does!", Fatimah had wept bitterly.

"If he did, why would he ask you to become Hindu?", Khadija had asked with pleading eyes, trying to convince her daughter that true love would do exactly the opposite.

Fatimah in red and swollen eyes, had looked up at her mother in utter disgust. "You're a hypocrite!", she had screamed and pushed her mother out of her room, slamming the door so hard that a gust of cement and sand flew off the edges.

If only Khadija had managed to get back into her daughter's room, instead of quietly walking away with a head full of thoughts, perhaps, the next morning she wouldn't be found lying with an open wrist in a pool of blood?

Fatimah was Khadija's only child. Her love for her daughter knew no bounds. After losing her first two babies to miscarriages, Khadija had spun her world around her little angel.

But... But, her angel was right, wasn't she? Khadija was a hypocrite indeed. She too embraced Islam because she wanted to marry Kareem, didn't she?

And, Kareem! Oh, Kareem! The more Khadija thought of how he had chided Fatimah, threatening her with dire consequences, the more she struggled to understand her husband. She wondered if three years of relationship and twenty-five years of marriage were truly enough to get to know a person or if she had been sleeping the entire time.

“You are bringing shame upon this family!”, Kareem, towering over her, had thundered as Fatimah cowered in the corner of her room. “You have no regard for our honour!”, he had yelled, sending a chill down Khadija’s spine as she suddenly remembered her own Baba.

Baba too, accusing her of those very crimes, had stood towering over a twenty-four year old Khadija as she too had cowered in the corner of the living room. For a split second, she had seen the same fear reflecting off Fatimah’s eyes, as if someone had forced her face to a mirror transcending time and space.

Khadija had no room inside left her heart for Baba after the incident, and even more so after Kareem unwittingly reminded her why. But after she lost Fatimah and watched Kareem’s pained eyes every single day, a few warm memories of Baba in his dhoti flooded back.

She remembered him toiling away in the farm in the hottest summer, tilling the soil, fertilising the land, with a smile on his face, so his family wouldn’t go to bed in hunger. She remembered him waiting patiently for his glass of milk every morning as Maa milked the cow, Mala, in her shed for a while before the calf went back to his mother. She remembered him in the flickering light of the oil lantern, regaling her and her little brother, Saagar, with stories from his childhood during dinner as they and their pet dog, Kallu, waited, hungry, while Maa served the roti and sabzi.

There was this one story Baba liked to tell and retell about how his uncle on his pilgrimage to Madurai had heroically caught a thief, who was a fellow passenger on the train, stealing the cloth pouch of an elderly lady, and how she thanked him as the pouch contained a thousand rupees in cash, which was a lot of money in those days, which she had managed for her son’s treatment with a lot of difficulty and had to sell the house for.

Khadija remembered Maa fondly. When Fatimah was little and had learned to say Ammi for the first time, Khadija couldn’t help but weep for Maa. Still, she remained strong and cold, trying to be angry at her. Every time she fell sick or things got difficult, the cycle would break and she would weep again for Maa. After all, Maa did abandon her, but she never accused her or threatened her with dire consequences for daring to love a Muslim boy. But she would remember the abandonment once again and harden herself.

The loss of Fatimah changed everything. She wanted to place her heavy head on Maa’s cosy and warm lap while she would lovingly run her cool fingers through her hair, for twenty-five years was a long time and Khadija could feel her young-blooded anger tainted in sadness fade away over the years.

Maa had pleaded with Khadija the same way she had pleaded with her own daughter. But Khadija was adamant, her love for Kareem growing stronger by the minute. She remembered how Maa had looked away when Baba decided to throw her out of the house, and somewhere, deep down, she felt her pain, as a mother who too lost her child.

And often, Khadija couldn't help but miss her little brother, Saagar, who remained a silent and helpless spectator. She remembered him racing on the kaccha path by their farm on a cycle twice his size, before stepping into the shadow of the large peepal tree by the concrete road, chased by the heat of the scorching sun. Always uninterested in studies, unlike Khadija, Saagar had always intended to work in the family.

Good on his word, as he grew up, he added his labour to the farm and manager to sprint back and forth from the family grocery shop set up by Maa a couple of years after his birth, with the money she inherited from Grandma. Khadija herself used to manage the accounts of the shop on the evenings after returning from school and then college, being the responsible and meticulous girl she always was.

Khadija remembered how her Baba and Maa's joint efforts had put a stronger roof over their heads, replaced many torn clothes, allowed Saagar to buy a flute on which he played the sweetest of melodies whenever he was free, and allowed herself to continue to study.

She had met Kareem when she started travelling to the big town for her graduation studies in Political Science. He was a college senior and was pursuing his post-graduation in English. Smitten by the tall and handsome brooding man, she fell in love. When Kareem approached her, she was on cloud nine.

Within two years, head over heels in love with Kareem and the new faith and culture he had introduced her to, she knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. In the third year, which was her final year of graduation, they started talking about marriage because Kareem had gotten a job as a school teacher in a local government school.

When Kareem hesitantly mentioned that his Abbu and Ammi would be very unhappy if he brought a Hindu girl home and asked her if she was willing to embrace Islam for their love to be eternal, Khadija agreed without batting an eyelid.

Trouble sought her out once she announced to her family that she wanted to marry Kareem.

Baba was furious that she wanted to marry a Muslim boy, that she was bringing shame upon the family, that she had no regard for their honour.

And Maa had asked, "But, does Kareem love you for who you are?"

And Khadija had protested, "Of course he does!"

"But if he did, why would he ask you to be Muslim?", Maa had pleaded.

"You don't understand! I love Kareem! Kareem is fine with who I am but his parents won't understand!", she had cried.

Maa had argued, "You are talking about giving up your identity! Do you know how difficult that is-"

Khadija had angrily cut her short and retorted, "My identity is Kareem!"

Baba had enough for almost a week and had dragged her by the arm and thrown her out of the house in the middle of the night, slamming the door on her face, as Maa looked away, weeping silently, and Saagar stood by quietly.

She had gathered herself up and noticed the crowd that was attracted by the commotion that had gone on all day. Hurting and angry, Khadija had run off to the rail station. She had waited at the platform all night and in the morning, taken the first train to the big town and called Kareem from the phone booth.

Kareem had come as soon as he could and embraced her as she wept bitterly. With the little money Kareem had on him, they had decided to buy a beautiful salwar kameez and burqa for her before going to his house. His parents had accepted Khadija with open arms and for her, there was no looking back. Until now...

Eid was just around the corner. Although the family had decided to abstain from celebrating Eid that year and mourn for Fatimah, the wives of Kareem’s bothers, Ayesha and Saba, decided to take Khadija and travel to the big city and explore shopping malls to purchase a few gifts for their own brothers and sisters, and perhaps, little tokens for the family from the money they saved all year to spend just for Eid.

They thought it could be therapeutic to Khadija who since her daughter’s demise had stopped talking or even leaving the house. She used to sit silently by the window and missed her meals and her prayers. Sometimes she remembered to take a bath and relieve herself, and often she forgot to sleep. They had taken it upon themselves to care for her. They tried doing everything to uplift her mood but with every passing day, it seemed Khadija was slowly leaving, heading towards unknown lands.

Ayesha picked out a fine white and pink salwar kameez and a soft purple burqa for Khadija while Saba took a pot and a bucket and helped clean Khadija's hair. The two women chattered away in the meantime hoping to distract Khadija. Eventually, after a late breakfast of paratha and sabzi, they set out.

Khadija didn't speak. She had a million things going on in her mind and she was aware that the entire family thought she was losing her mental balance, but she remained unfettered. It's as if she wanted the family to think she was losing it.

She knew she'd leave Ayesha's and Saba's side at the first opportunity. After all, a city is a big place, easy to be lost in a crowd. And the opportunity came at the busy train station in Chennai. Thanks to Eid and Diwali shoppers flocking to the city, she deliberately slipped away into the crowd. For the first time in her entire life, she was calmer than ever.

Perhaps, she was losing it. Perhaps, she did lose it.

But Kareem would return home from the Mosque that evening and find a letter carefully tucked under his pillow. And Khadija wouldn't care what he would make of it.

"Dear Kareem,

For twenty-seven years, I have loved you more than life itself, devoting myself to you completely.

For twenty-five years, I have lived devoid of the cultural identity I was born into, the identity I grew up with and in. Why?

Tell me, Kareem, why did you have to marry Khadija? What was wrong with Shakthi?

For years, I lived in denial. I had deliberately forgotten that it was you who had suggested that I embrace Islam.

Islam, in its own way, is beautiful. But I never left my own faith and culture because I hated it. I left it because I loved you, however cliched that might sound.

You might say that you never forced me into anything. You might say that I readily accepted your suggestion and it's on me. But now that I look back, I realise that I would have lived with both faiths, both cultures, thriving inside me. My whole identity around them.

Well, I certainly cannot blame you for a decision I walked into upon a mere suggestion by you but I can definitely change my decision. After all, it was always my choice, right?

Kareem, it breaks my heart to say this but I no longer wish to be your wife and I no longer wish to be a part of the religious and cultural identity that came with being your wife.

My love for you died a million deaths when you uttered the same words to Fatimah, the ones that my Baba burned me with.

You two are not different, not in anyway. You're the same. Don't you see it? Because I do now... I see it...

I want to find my home, wherever that is.

I want to find my fate, whatever that is.

And I want to find my beginning and my end, whenever that is.

May your God and mine forgive me.

Khuda Hafiz,



Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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