ASYA FF: Preme Kahani Hai Mushkil

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Oct 11

Hai Saath Tu, Kya Hai Fikar (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 11 times)


Chapter 130

 

“Look Ayaan, I’d love to go, seriously. But don’t you think Jeeju might have a heart attack if he saw us dancing in a club with women dressed in revealing clothes? Drinking! Shouldn’t we try to respect his feelings on this?” 

They’d discussed this enough and Humaira was getting worried that Jeeju might blow a fuse with all this non-stop badgering. 

Ayaan harrumphed at his wife trying to reason with him about letting go of the nightclub fantasy. Please, did she not know how persuasive Ayaan Ahmed Khan could be? Omar and Faiz were already egging him on to talk to Asad. “You have only two days, dude,” they threatened him. “Or, extend your stay like we did when we were in India!” Ayaan had tried to show them his own Mukka Ahmed Khan then—he knew exactly why these losers had extended their stay in India. The Khan girls had turned out to be excellent excuses after all. 

Keeping their end of the bargain Omar and Faiz had bullied Feroze into saying yes—though Feroze had agreed to go only if Asad was OK with this adventure. Nikhat had already told him tales about her Bhaijaan’s conservatism and he wasn’t up for ruffling his brother-in-law’s feathers. Besides, he wasn’t such a club enthusiast himself. He was the kind of guy to sit it out in a corner busy on his phone instead of grinding and twerking away. But only because taking a book with him to the club would really not be okay. Could bouncers throw you out for disrupting the noise? A big part of him hoped that Asad would say no and end this nonsense once and for all. He’d be up for a live comedy show or a jazz club, but the idea of a nightclub just made him twitch a bit.

“Are you sure it’s only Bhaijaan you’re worried about? You’re not saying no because you’d feel shy and awkward?” Ayaan teased Humaira. No way was he giving up on this—this ultimate lifetime opportunity.

He pulled her hair and she slapped his hand away.

“May be,” Humaira said. “I would feel a bit weird. I’m sure Nikhat might too even if Najma and Nuzzhat are on board.”

“I think you’re forgetting the most important person here who could make all the difference. I’m certain Mona darling can make your General Jeeju relent—he’ll fold like a pack of cards.” 

Humaira giggled. “Oh really? You may be underestimating my General Jeeju and overestimating your Mona darling!” 

“Hah! As if,” Ayaan brushed a confident finger under his nose. If he had one of those maharaja-type mustaches he’d have given the tip a twirl. “Bhaijaan will be toast. Just watch!”

“May be,” Humaira shrugged. Right now Jeeju was on top of the world. Day before yesterday he’d seemed a bit off. He’d gone super-silent and reminded her of that old pre-Aapi days wala Jeeju who was stern and made you fidget because you thought you’d somehow done something wrong. But today? Today he was ecstatic after getting Zaid’s results. He wouldn’t stop beaming. 

“No allergies!” Aapi had squealed when they returned from the doctor’s even though she’d already texted them the good news. Aapi’d hugged her and together the girls had done a quick hop and dance. They’d FaceTimed with Ammi and Abbu back in India and of course Ammi had sobbed in relief. The whole family was in a mood to celebrate. And may be, just may be, Ayaan might get his wish if he was wise to strike when the iron was still hot. May be Jeeju wouldn’t be able to say no after all.

  

“Asad?”

“Hmm,” he answered, distracted. Zaid was napping on his chest, and they’d darkened the room to sneak in a post-lunch nap themselves. Only a few more days of such luxury. Once he was back home, work would consume him again. Naptime would officially be over.

“Ayaan’s bugging me again.” 

Asad exhaled. He rolled over carefully to deposit Zaid by his side and thumped the tiny chest that rose and fell. 

“Damn.” 

Zoya giggled. Damn was right. She knew Asad felt trapped by his brother’s demands to step out of his comfort zone. Everyone knew that 2-3 years ago Ayaan wouldn’t even have asked. He’d have sneaked behind his brother’s back to have all the fun in the world. “What Bhai doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” used to be his life-saving mantra. In fact in those early-early days didn’t it used to be her mantra too? She too had snuck behind Asad’s back to drag Najma to a cricket match—despite his warning to not go. Allah miyan, the Mr. Khan of those days! 

Gusse ki factory. 


But now with a brand new Asad who was the ever-indulgent husband and dad, everyone also knew that he had pretty much lost the power to say no to anything fun. This new Asad had been forged in the fires of betrayal and vengeance to grasp love’s fierce and loyal embrace. This Asad had come to realize that good, clean fun was pretty close to being a fundamental right.

Zoya crossed her fingers.

And if Asad had changed so had Ayaan. Ayaan had become the guy who no longer snuck behind his brother’s back like a rebellious teen. He asked permission now. He begged for Bhai to join in the fun.

How could Asad possibly resist? Even in the old days he always gave in to Ayaan’s demands. 

Asad clicked his tongue in impatience. But how could he say yes to  … this new demand? This was really asking too much of him. A nightclub?

There’d be scantily clad women there, he was dead sure of it. A lot of dirty dancing and … he would just die of embarrassment. The drinking … the drunkenness … and the body shotting nonsense he’d heard of and seen in films …

His face twisted.

Zoya sighed. There he went, gritting his teeth again. 

“I’ve ignored him so far but he’s really getting desperate,” she said. “Raaburt’s decided that this will be his goodbye to New York.” 

A reluctant chuckle broke from him. “He actually said that?" 

“No, that’s my spin on it. He hasn’t figured out the wording just yet.” 

“Please don’t give him any more ideas,” Asad said. “I don’t get what the big deal is. Why is it so important for him to have this experience! I’ve said they can go on their own. Why does he want me to tag along?”


Zoya grinned. Poor Jahanpanah, he’d be so uncomfortable in one of these places. “Aww, he wants his Bhaijaan to go with him, that’s why! He thinks he won’t have fun without you.”

“Even though he knows I’m not a big fan of such activities or places?”

Asad turned to stare at the ceiling and crossed his arms under his head. A few years ago he would have taken this infernal pestering as a sign of disrespect. Why couldn’t Ayaan understand and respect his views? But Zoya had managed to dismantle some of these high-horsey, prickly ideas of his: “Isn’t it more disrespectful when he does something behind your back and you find out about it months later from a third party?”

Zoya had been folding Zaid’s clothes. She pushed the little piles of tees and onesies and pants and miniature socks to sit by Asad’s side. 

“May be that’s exactly why,” she said as she rubbed his chest in circles. “I think in his own bumbling way he’s just begging you to share what he loves. He wants your approval, I guess. He looks up to you and doesn’t want you to hate or be judgemental about the things he loves!” 

“Hmm.” Asad really hadn’t thought of it that way. So Ayaan really wasn’t being a disrespectful pest, just an insecure one who craved brotherly blessing? “But I’m not being judgmental! I’ve said yes, they can go. They have my permission and blessing!”

He shuddered a minute later. He may as well fess up to what was really bugging him. 

“I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel … in such a place.” Garish visions of a jam-packed room with half-naked bodies grinding to some unholy noise swam in his eyes. He got a headache just thinking about it. 

Zoya rested her chin on his chest and he scooted to make room for her on the bed. “What’re your real fears, Mr. Khan? Tell me.”

He grunted, suddenly embarrassed to share his insecurities. 

“Is it that you’ll find the women’s clothing offensive? Or you’ll see some public displays of affection?”

He squeezed his eyes shut and she smiled. Yup, hit the nail on the head. 

“The music will be terrible and loud …” he muttered. 

“Yes, the music will be loud. Probably as loud as the music we play at our Indian wedding functions—remember, like the one you came to attend all the way from India.” 


“Hmmph. I don’t know why Indians have become so mental about dancing all the time! Why must every occasion or event have DJs and dancing? Incredibly foolish.” 

She laughed. If her husband were the prime minister he would ban all incredibly foolish activites for sure. Dancing would be first on the list. 

“It’s really the women’s clothes and the PDA that bothers you, right?” 

And the drinking.

Asad covered his eyes and nodded. Might as well own up to the diagnosis. She’d probably give him a big feminist lecture now for being the 17th Century blah, blah, blah. 

She pushed his hands away and framed his face in her hands. “Look at me.”

He did. 

“You’ve been so good so far and I’m proud of you!"


"You haven’t thrown a fit or had a single heart attack even though wherever we went there were dozens of women in slinky tank tops or short shorts, camis or cut-offs.” Everywhere. New York was enjoying a rare hot spring after a wicked winter. You couldn’t stop New Yorkers from busting out their shorts and tank tops in 60-degree weather—these days the temp. had been well into the mid-70s. 

And Zoya had definitely noticed his reaction. Her poor husband had kept his eyes at eye level not daring to look below women’s chins. Not a single peek. She knew also because that’s how he used to look at her before they got together. Eyes right! Left, right, left. Eyes front! General Jeeju was extremely particular of tehzeeb sightlines indeed. 

Asad blushed. It had been surprisingly easy to navigate the streets in New York and not once did his tightass tehzeeb-meter go haywire because of glimpses of partial nudity.

Because he got it now.

He’d heard his sisters and Zoya and Humaira discussing how no one stares at women in America and how free it felt. He’d come to an abrupt halt hearing that. The one reason he was so 17th Century Jahanpanah with the girls in India was precisely because men in India stared. They’d leer at women in burqas let alone shorts. But here you just didn’t stare. Here you accepted the fact that women had the right to make choices about what they wore without being judged for it. And if you didn’t stare at men for what they wore then why subject women to that? Once you figured that out the rest was easy. Women didn’t need covering up; men needed to get over themselves.

Zoya leaned in to nibble at his jaw. “You Jahanpanah, are a new 21st Century man now. Why let old worries pull you back? And who cares about PDA when we can indulge in some of our own?” 

He flashed his eyes at her. “Really, I’m a 21st century Jahanpanah? Because I’m OK with women and their … umm, short clothes?”

“Umm-hmm,” she nodded enthusiastically. “Because you’re OK with them choosing to wear and do whatever. For not judging them any more.” 

His breath caught. He had judged her once. More than once. Even though her clothes covered her neck to wrist to toe he’d judged her as badtameez and unIndian—someone who’d lacked proper upbringing.


“Ye mere kapde hain, character nahin!” Her bitter words spoken through unshed tears tore at him …

 


He remembered that day as if it had been only yesterday … a mini skirt. He’d actually erupted and gone apesh*it, as she liked to remind him, over a mini skirt. How had he thought he even had the right? They weren’t together then. He was still battling his attraction to her and she hadn’t yet told him about her feelings for him. So how could he have even thought that he had any right to say those things to her?

“Dekhiye Mr. Khan, stop giving me these judgemental looks,” she had often said in those days. 

Asad ground the heels of his hands to his eyes. 

“What?” Zoya asked as she pulled his hands away. 

He tilted her chin up to look into her eyes. “I hope I’ve changed enough to understand that woh unke kapde hain, character nahin. A wise person once taught me that.” 

Zoya smiled. Ahh, her Janahpanah knew how to melt her in more ways than one. 

Asad sighed as he playfully dug a finger into her dimple. “So I guess that means we’re going to a nightclub?” 

Zoya giggled. “Only if you think you’re up for the challenge. And if you’re bored out of your mind or uncomfortable, you can pull out," she wagged her brows at him and he laughed at the innuendo. "Then we can leave early and have our own party back here. Just the two of us.”

And Zaid. 

“Fine. Tell him yes and get him off my back.” 

He watched Zoya text Ayaan. She showed him her phone the next instant when Ayaan texted back giddy emojis dancing and clapping and high fiving. “I knew you’d do it, Mona Darling!!! Shabash mera cheetah!” This pronouncement was followed by a bunch of cheetahs.

Asad groaned. But now he’d committed himself and there was no turning back. 

 “Zoya?” 

“Yeah, baby?” 

“16-17 years from now is this how you’ll convince me about going easy on Zaid?”

 


“If at 16 or 17 Zaid is asking to go to a nightclub I’ll expect you to come down very hard on him, Mr. Khan!”

“Really? You’d want me to be strict! But you’re the one who got fake IDs made at 19 to sneak into a club!” She’d told him about some of her pre-marital escapades.

“Yes really, Mr. Khan. Our son isn’t going to pubs or bars or clubs at 16! And even though I did get the fake IDs made my friends and I didn’t make it past the door, remember? I had to call Jeeju to come get us. It was humiliating!” 

Anwar had laughed at her and her friends who were mortified at being caught and thrown out. The girls had lied at home saying that they were going to be spending the night at a friend’s. They were stuck and only Jeeju could be trusted to not yell at them. He’d treated them to ice cream that night and then said mildly, “girls, the next time you want to pull this stunt keep me in the loop, OK?” They’d nodded, solemnly. “In fact keep me posted even when you’re legal,” he’d added. He went on to repeat the talk about boys—never trust them, watch your back. And your drink. Have a buddy system. Go to the restroom in pairs.

Blah, blah, blah.

They’d all trooped back to the Farooqui house that night. And Aapi had been livid enough for the both of them. She had given them the expected lecture making up for Jeeju’s bindas-ness in a hurry. Thank god though she agreed to not tell the other parents! But she’d exacted punishment from them—the girls had to give up the next few weekends helping to clean out the garage and hold a yard sale. And that night she’d made them cut up the fake IDs.

“So you’re going to be the cool and fun mom and I’ll be the bad cop to the kids?” Asad asked in mock-outrage.

 

“On some days I do want you to be the bad cop. But on some days I hope you’ll go rescue the kids like JeejuMan when they do something stupid—which you know they will!” 

Asad had heard all the stories about JeejuMan. Yes, he hoped he could be a good dad like Jeeju. Funny, how he now envied Zoya her upbringing.

“Zoya, Jeeju told me that the trick to parenting was to be a parent first and then a friend. Make sure that you remind me of that when I’m being the bad cop. Remind me to be the friend too.” He feared he’d been too strict with Najma. 


That’s why she’d lied about getting her hair cut short, the fashon show, and Zoya’s involvement in protecting her from the college gundas. And Ms. Farooqui had landed up in an Indian jail. Asad didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.


“Done,” she kissed his nose and lips. “Now get some rest, Mr. Khan cos. you’ll have to do double duty as our bodyguard at the club!”

“Aw hell.” For a second there he had almost forgotten what he’d said yes to. 

“You’ll survive. Now hush!”

“So you really never made it to a nightclub?” He asked after a few minutes of hushing.

“I did, but it wasn’t as cool as we’d imagined. We went to celebrate Jackie’s 21st birthday. She’s the youngest among us. But we were so self-conscious and so highly-strung that we couldn’t relax. The dancing was fun though!”

“So you’re not too keen on this nightclub idea either? I thought you’d be straight up as excited as Ayaan!” 

“Now that I have you going with me, I’m more than super-excited.” Zoya clapped her hands. Being single and young got you a lot of unwanted attention at a club. That’s why they had been so awkward that first time! But with a husband in tow? That changed everything! Aapi used to always say: “For many Indian women real freedom often comes after marriage.” Because hyper Indian parents kept their daughters on a tight leash.

“Don’t do this.”

“Don’t go there!”

“Stay home.”

“What will neighbors say?”

“Who will marry you?” 

Jeeju used to make fun of Aapi when she went out with friends for movies, on cruises, women-only get-togethers, birthday celebrations and what not. “Now in middle age they’re getting to be the teenagers that their parents wouldn’t let them be,” he would tell Zoya. 

So yes, having Asad around would in fact be more fun at a club—no worries about anxious parents or a late night, being hit on or having to guard their drinks. She could really get to be an irresponsible American teenager with no consequences of being grounded or yelled at.

It would be M.A.

 

Asad’s lukewarm thumbs up led to the guys racing to research clubs across town. Marquee or the Output? The ballroom at Jane Hotel or Cielo? The super-exclusive ones that celebrities favored might be inaccessible at short notice. When to get there—not too early … but not too late that they’d be refused entry. Reservations?

When the girls learned of the Jahanpanah seal of approval they squealed and scampered to get their clothes ready. What would they wear?

“Zoya, what’ll you wear tonight?” Asad wanted to know too. 

She had her closet door wide open and was staring at the racks of clothing. She had been standing in front of it like this for the past twenty minutes. “You guys are so lucky,” she mumbled. “A shirt and slacks and you’re done. We, on the other hand …”

He watched her from the bed. “What did you wear the last time you went clubbing on a fake ID?”

She turned to him with an impish grin. “You really want to know?”

The narrowed eyes and raised eyebrow sent her burrowing into the depths of the closet. He watched her butt sway and wave and that familiar lick of desire started a firetrail … 

“This!” Her face was flushed from the exertions. As flushed when he had her pinned and arching under him—

Eyes hooded he looked up at the dress she held. It was simple enough—a grey-black slinky-shimmery thing, full-sleeved with shoulder cut-offs, almost knee-length.

Asad grabbed the pillows, punched them before sliding them behind his back and sat up against the headboard. 

“Show me.”


“Asad, we don’t have tim—!”

“Shh. And Zoya? Since it’s for my eyes only …” he left the words unsaid. 

She blushed. As if he even needed to say that much. Didn’t she already know the way his badtameez mind worked by now?

Later—after she had showed him the dress without anything on under it and he’d just as quickly whipped it off her body and shown his lusty appreciation of the curves underneath—he had co*cked a lazy eyebrow and suggested: “Why not wear this tonight?” 

“Really? In front of everyone?” 

“Sure,” he drawled. “With the proper underclothing and those boots—definitely those black boots …” He winked at her. 

She gasped. Oh hello, where had her tehzeeb-e-afta husband gone and who was this guy?

“You’re serious? You won’t have a meltdown? You won’t explode into a fullblown tameez tantrum?”

He’d grinned a satisfied Cheshire cat grin and pulled her naked body against his. “Babe, the meltdown and explosion already happened a few minutes ago, remember?” Another wink. “I’m good to go for now. Wear what you want.”

 

She didn’t wear the dress.

Because somehow now it was just their thing. Their secret. Their love costume and armor. For his eyes only. And for her to see herself reflected in his eyes. She wore her skinny jeans and that white zari kurti that she’d worn the night of their confession in that Thai restaurant. They still smiled their secret smile at one another each time Asad recognized it. His fingers had memorized each zari paisley on it. His thumb had trailed familiar paths along its neckline and his lips had branded her at its timeless cuffs. 

Asad’s eyes lit up with pleasure when she came out of the room ready to leave for the night. How well she knew him. How well she intuited that even though he’d have loved to see her in the dress he may not yet be ready to share her in that dress in public. This kurti and jeans were the perfect choice indeed. They were the uniform of the girl he’d fallen in love with despite his Akdu Jahanpanahness. The mini skirt episode popped into his head again. “I’ve tried to wear sarees kyunki apko achcha lagta hai.”

She was still doing it for him. “Kyunki apko achcha lagta hai.”

And wasn’t she already telling him how she really felt about him even then?

His grateful fingers itched to tuck her hair behind her ear but the parents were here. What if he couldn’t look away from her eyes? The parents would laugh and clear their throats like they always did to remind them that they were being behaya as usual. But in the taxi he raised her hand to his lips and whispered against her ear, “you look beautiful. But then you always do when you wear this.”

She smiled. This playful, romantic side of his meant that he wasn’t anxious about the nightclub. That he was gloing with the flow—knowing that relaxed her too.

Asad cleared his throat. “Is there a mini skirt you can wear for me tomorrow?”

“Jo hukum, Jahanpanah,” she laughed softly. “I have a white denim one. With buttons down the front.”

“How many buttons?”

She swallowed. “Umm … four, I think.” 

He groaned. He could just imagine it—four buttons meant that it wouldn’t be too—“Perfect,” he growled against her lobe and she shuddered. “Then wear just that. Nothing else.”

Her breath caught. He’d done it again. Now all evening she’d have only one thing on her mind. All evening she’d be in a state of misty, smoky arousal—at the horny edge of a milksilk org*asm.

And he knew it too. Damn you, Mr. Khan. She dug her nails in his thigh and he sniggered.

Asad scr*ped a thumbnail across her palm and felt her buck next to him. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Khan. It’ll be hell for me too.”

 

And Zaid? What about him?

Zaid had an exclusive invite to the grandparents’ club. After feasting on his favorite new American meal—Mac and cheese—he FaceTimed with Dobby and told him about the girl who needed Zaid Miyan and Dobby Miya-oon’s help. Chhoti Nani and Nanu showed him the toys that were waiting for him when he came back home to Bopa. There was a rocking horse!

Dinner and kheer were extra khaas.

And story time was extra long.

Dadi told him his favorite Abbustory and then Nanu told him a brand new Ammistory. He had looked around for his Ammi and Abbu but Dadu made him forget about them by blowing on his stomach. He had laughed till he couldn’t breathe.

Shireen Dadi reminded everyone about Ayaan Chachu’s favorite game as a four-year-old. The famous pee-line game!

Dilshad groaned—she remembered it only too well. Because Ayaan had tried to rope his Bhaijaan into playing that game too. Badi Bi went, “Ya Allah,” and smacked her head.

“Yaaa yayaa laaa,” Zaid smacked his head too.

“What’s a pee-line game?” Zee Nani asked innocently.

“You don’t want to know,” Rashid muttered. But he was sure that the Chachu would teach his Bhatija one day and pretty soon Zaid would be playing this game too. And teaching the younger siblings and cousins whenever they came along.

“Ayaan decided he was going to be the peeing champion of Bhopal. So he would practice by drawing chalk lines on the bathroom floor in front of the pot.”

Zeenat was still confused. “Chalk lines? Kis liye?” 

“To measure the longest distance he could aim and pee from!” 

“Allah miyan, what’s wrong with boys!” Zeenat moaned as she covered her face. “They’re just wired different, right?”

“Bilkul! Then he graduated to peeing in the potted plants around the house,” Badi Bi added. “Ammi, I watered all your flowers, he would come and tell Shireen!” 

They all laughed. And then everyone looked at Zaid. Oh yes, history would be repeating itself.

“Peeee yaaaa,” he clapped his hands. 

Dadi scooped him up in her arms and planted a tight smooch on his resisting cheek. “Zaid bhi Ammi and Dadi ko gift dega? Plants water karega?”

He grinned. Definitely.

“Bechara Asad, kya beetegi uss par,” Shireen mused. “Isn’t it great how kids change you?” She tickled Zaid’s foot and he gurgled; his curls bounced.

Later Chhoti Dadi and Badi Dadi helped him to finish the Empire State Building. 

He’d fussed only a little when he missed Ammi and Abbu. He wanted to stay up till they got home. But his eyes wouldn’t cooperate. Indedly fooliss. Then Dadi carried him to Ammi’s darkened room and hummed Abbu’s song to him as she walked him to sleep in her arms. 

“Sweet dreams mera bachcha,” he heard her whisper. 

He dreamt of a warrior kicking monsters off the Bookin Bij. He saw Jhassi kRani pepper spray a beast that howled and fled. He saw himself riding on Jhassi kRani’s back.

“Zaaf!” he mumbled in his sleep.

And he waved when he saw Dobby sitting on Stachoo of Wibetty’s shoulder.

Zaid smiled in his sleep.

Dilshad dropped a kiss on his forehead and hugged him just a little bit tighter before tucking him in his spot on the bed. He didn’t know that she had prayed over his silken head. Prayed that he got to be as naughty and have all the fun that Ayaan Chachu had had and none of the heartache of his parents’ childhood. “Khoob shararat karna, humein hasana, aur Insh’allah, khud bhi hanste rehna.” How she wished she could have warranted the same for his father.

 

Asad wasn’t having too bad a time. 

So far he hadn’t exhibited any signs of a heart attack or a tameez rage. And come to think of it he was tickled to see the girls’ excitement. It was non-stop. They squealed and giggled and bounced and talked over each other in sheer glee, even more excited than Ayaan. It started the minute they espied each other in the club’s parking lot and gushed over being dressed similarly—jeans and kurtis or tunics—even though they had planned this in advance. Everyone oohed and ahhed over everyone’s shoes and earrings and clutches. That took about 20 minutes if not more.

Asad pulled Najma to his side and dropped a kiss on her head. “You’re looking beautiful, Tamatar.”

She blushed with pleasure. “You don’t mind me in jeans, Bhaijaan?” 

“Nah, why should I mind? You’re happy, that’s all I care about.” He’d wasted so much time in being angry and overprotective all these years. He should have spent more time chatting with her and spoiling her. Asad touched her hair remembering the fiasco of the haircut from a couple of years ago. It had become yet another excuse for him and Ms. Farooqui to squabble over in their I’m attracted-to-you-but-still-hate-you days.



“You’re growing your hair out?” 

“You noticed? Yeah, I told Omar that I used to have to really long hair and now he insists he wants to see how long!” 

“I always think of you in long hair,” he told her. “We miss you so much,” he added.

“I know, Bhaijaan! Me too!” Her arm around his waist tightened.

“OK, go now, the girls are waiting for you. And I don’t want you to see me cry.” She laughed at his attempt to cheer her up. 

Najma skipped ahead a few steps and then returned to give him a tight squeeze. “Bhaijaan, I’m really happy that Zaid doesn’t have allergies. Can’t you leave him with us for a few years? He’s soooo cute!” 

“You already have your hands full with a bigger baby,” Asad jerked his chin at Omar who was fake-wrestling with Ayaan over some imagined insult. 

“True,” Najma giggled. 

“Tamatar, hurry!” Zoya called her. 

Najma patted her brother’s arm. “Don’t worry about tonight, Bhaijaan. We’ll behave and won’t let anything bad happen to you!” 

Asad rolled his eyes. They were all trying to protect him like guilty parents who try to cover their kids’ eyes and ears when a love scene interrupts a Hindi movie. First Zoya. Now Najma.

“Bhai!” Ayaan appeared next to him beaming his toothy grin. The hair was even messier because of Omar’s recent high jinks. “You OK?” he asked Asad as he ran a hand through his mane. 

Asad laughed. He couldn’t resist. How could he? “Yes, I’m OK. So far. But you better behave Ayaan, or you’ll be meeting Mukka—” He raised his fist to drive the point home. 


“I know, I know Bhai! I promise. Best behavior!” He held his ears. “Thanks for saying yes, by the way. I’m sorry for being a pest.” 

Asad looked at him in surprise. Never had he ever heard his brother apologize for being a pest. He wrapped an arm around Ayaan’s neck in a headlock. “That’s OK. It’s your birthright to be a pest! Har family mein ek pest hona chahiye.” And he dragged his younger brother to where the others were waiting by the entrance. 

“Bhai!” Ayaan protested. “When did you become so mean? Zaroor Mona darling ka kaam hai!” 

 

Once inside they’d all tried to sneak guilty looks at Asad’s face. The music had hit them like a crashing wave. Zoya saw everyone looking and squeezed his hand. When he looked down at her she asked softly, “you OK, baby?” 

“I will be once everyone stops asking me that!” he growled. Or staring at me like I suddenly grew horns.

And he was. OK, that is. Yes there were all the things that he’d feared but then his family was right there next to him shielding him from any unsavory or X-rated sights. They surrounded him, distracted him, took extra care to get him settled down with a drink and eventually he did let his guard down. He even agreed to dance and join the gyrating, pulsating crush of people dimly lit by flashing strobe lights. Once again everyone else formed a rough and intimate circle around him. Ayaan and Omar and Faiz took turns to jump and jive and jig in his face. The girls had their own cluster going. He watched their animated faces as the dancing lights skimmed over them. Instinct and habit made him squint to see if anyone was staring at or dangerously close to groping them. No. Every other person on the floor was lost in their own frenzy. It was nuts. He didn’t get why they had to do this to have fun but he’d decided that he wouldn’t be Akdu tonight and rain on anyone’s parade.

Once he felt that he’d done his part, spent a customary 15-20 minutes of hazri, Asad left them to join Feroze at their table. Thank god it was tucked in far away enough from the deafening racket. At least they didn’t have to shout too much to hear each other. Feroze had already completed his rounds and earned himself at least a half hour of sitting time. Between them they figured that the girls would be fine with Ayaan, Omar and Faiz—tonight's designated bulldogs.

Nikhat was the first one to break away from the madness and return to their table to check on her husband and Bhaijaan. She smiled shyly at Asad and he smiled back happy to see her relaxed and being spoiled by Feroze who got her to drink water to stay hydrated. “Your heels not bothering you?” he heard Feroze ask his sister and grinned. Soon he’d be asking Zoya that too. Why did girls insist on wearing shoes that killed their feet? He remembered Zoya’s heels though and shut up his mental judgmental commentary—those heels had made him think of things he’d do to her when he got her alone with him ...  

Soon the others rolled in too, exhilarated. The girls were fanning themselves, their faces shone, their eyes sparkled.

“That was so much fun!” Asad heard one of their breathless voices. 

“Oh my god, we have to do that again!”

He resisted rolling his eyes. This was good. They were happy. That's all that really mattered.

They ordered drinks. Virgin Mojitos and Pina Coladas and Margaritas all around. In all fruit flavors. The girls couldn’t believe what they were getting away with just under their Bhaijaan’s and Jeeju’s noses. Asad still seemed mellow so they ordered another round. With appetizers.

Life was good. This was serious fun.

 

“Did you just see that?” Asad whipped his head around at Zoya’s raised voice. He'd been talking to Omar.

“Zoya, what happened?” he asked. “Are you OK?” 

She was in an agitated discussion with Nikhat. “You saw that, right? I didn't imagine it?” 

"No Zoya Bhabhi, you didn't imagine it. I saw it too!"

“Zoya?” Asad gripped her arm not caring if the others saw. She looked mad and incredulous.

“Mr. Khan,” she pointed at the table diagonally across from theirs. “See that guy? Nikhat and I are pretty sure we saw him slip something into that girl’s drink.” 

“No way! What girl?” Najma asked spinning her head like crazy.

“Shh, I just saw her leave their table,” said Nikhat. “She must’ve gone to the restroom!” 

Zoya knocked her chair back. “Mr. Khan, keep an eye on that guy. We’ll be right back.” 

And the girls went trooping to the restroom. Only Nikhat had seen the girl’s face so they had to rely on her to ID her among the many women. 

They waited impatiently for the stalls to empty. 

Finally that girl stepped out and moved toward the sinks. 

“Hi, excuse me?” Zoya called out to the young woman when Nikhat elbowed her to confirm the girl’s identity. 

“Yes?” the blonde turned and looked at them curiously before reaching for the faucet.

Zoya stepped forward to look at her reflection in the mirror. “This is going to sound really dumb or weird, but how well do you know the guy you’re with?”

“Pretty well,” she laughed, “he’s a good friend. I’ve known him for over a year. Why?”

“Umm …” the girls looked at each other uneasily. 

“We just saw him dump something in your drink,” Zoya blurted. 

“What? You’re kidding me!” 

“Sadly, no. I wish I was kidding. I saw it and my sister-in-law here,” Zoya pulled Nikhat forward, “she saw it too. It was right after you left to use the restroom.” Nikhat nodded.

The girl’s face reddened and she sagged against the counter. “Are you sure? It can't be! There’s no way you could’ve been mistaken?” 

Zoya and Nikhat shook their heads. 

The girl crumpled. 

They moved closer to pat her shoulder when a few tears leaked out from under her lashes.

“How could he? I trusted him! I can’t believe this—” 

Zoya was the first to recover from the outrage that burned inside her. They had always heard stories of date rape drugs on the news but never thought that they’d come face to face with the crime in action. How dare he! That lecherous, as*s-wiping piece of—

Nikhat stroked the girl’s back. She felt terrible for what this girl must be feeling right now.

The girl was crying softly, “I shouldn’t’ve come. I didn’t even want to,” she rambled. May be the betrayal still hadn’t sunk in. “I just broke up with my boyfriend and was feeling low. Jake suggested coming here would take my mind off—Oh god, I’m so dumb!”

“No, you’re not!” Najma couldn’t bear to stay silent and hear this girl start to blame herself. “He’s the one to blame. How dare he think he could take advantage of you when you’re so vulnerable!” Her face got redder and redder. Humaira rubbed her arm in comfort.

“Look, let’s be sure about this first,” Zoya said. “Our table overlooks yours. Do you want to go back and make your excuses? We can make sure that he doesn’t try to bully you. We have a big group. We’ll make sure you get home OK.”

Nuzzhat handed the girl some tissues. “Make sure you don’t drink anything at the table. May be you can pretend to feel sick?”

“Or you could pretend to know us and join us if you want?” Humaira suggested.

The girl sniffed. “Thank you,” she breathed deep as she looked from one helpful face to another. “Thank you all. I still can’t believe it’s happening to me. Would he really—?” 

“We don’t want to wait and find out.” Nikhat spoke with quiet firmness. “I’m Nikhat,” she stuck out her hand. “What’s your name?”

“Amy,” she said tearfully.

“Amy, go back to your table and we’ll take care of the rest,” Zoya patted her arm. “I’m Zoya by the way. You can call me Zo. Remember that when we show up at your table.”

They oversaw her wash her face and fix her make-up and soon followed her out of the restroom to join the guys.

 

The guys hadn’t been idle all this while. While Omar, Faiz and Ayaan kept a close eye on Mr. Date Rape, Asad and Feroze went in search of the manager. It took some time to convince him but they were able to get him to believe their story: their group had seen this guy pop something in a girl’s drink.

The manager didn’t want trouble on his hands. If what they said turned out to be true—

He offered to go check the CCTV footage. In the meanwhile could they distract the girl and keep her away from her drink? “That’s already been taken care of,” Asad told him with full confidence in his wife and their sisters. 

When they joined everyone at the table the girls had returned. Good ole Faiz was even recording the couple at the other table. They watched Amy say something to her partner. The guy frowned. They watched the guy push the drink under Amy’s nose. They couldn’t hear what they were saying because of the noise but his body language spoke volumes: Just a little bit, he urged. Relax, they saw him mouth the words. 

They saw Amy get more and more upset. 

She was becoming teary-eyed and probably pleading illness—holding her head, waving the drink away. I want to go, they saw her say. He moved the drink closer to her. This will relax you, he seemed to say. Zoya wanted to march up to them and punch him in the face. What a sleazebucket!

She couldn’t bear it a second longer. Zoya jumped up ready to have a go at him but Asad grabbed her arm to calm her down.

“You have a plan?” he leaned in to whisper. 

“Oh boy, do I have a plan!” she muttered. 


"OK, game on, but just take a couple of deep breaths, OK? For me."

He led her over to the other table with a rough idea of what her plan might be. If it failed they could improvise on the spot. He just needed to make sure she didn't have a stroke from the rage that poured off her.

“Amy, is that you?” Zoya shrieked loud enough for everyone’s heads to turn. 

Amy turned too and broke into a relieved smile. “Zo? You? Here? How are you!” She rose to hug Zoya. “It’s so good to see you,” she said with genuine warmth. 

“I haven’t seen you in ages! This is my husband.” Zoya turned to point to Asad and watched them shake hands. Jake looked more and more annoyed by the minute but managed to paste a plastic smile on his face. “Why don’t you join us for a drink?” Zoya said. 

“I would love to but I was just leaving. I’m feeling sick. That’s what I was telling Jake right now.” She waved toward the guy who did not look pleased at being interrupted. 

“Hi,” Zoya extended her hand to the guy and gritted her teeth as he shook it. She felt Asad's hand on her waist and stood taller. “I’m Amy’s neighbor. From the same street.” She hoped this guy didn’t know too much about Amy’s neighborhood and that the lie would work. She crossed her fingers behind her back. Jake the snake!

Casually she turned to Amy and slipped an arm around her shoulder. “Aww, I’m so sorry to hear you’re not well.”

Asad jumped right in seizing the moment. “You know what, we can get that drink some other time. We should probably leave too, right honey?” He asked Zoya and she gave him a deep, deep smile—it must have killed him to call her honey in public but she was so damn grateful for that. Extra sugar for you tonight, Mr. Khan. 

“We could give you a ride home,” Asad said to Amy. 

“That would be great,” Amy breathed.

“Hey, that’s OK, you don't have to. I can drop you, Amy,” a panicked Jake spoke. “It’s no problem.”

“No Jake, that’s fine. It’s out of your way and it’s way too late. This would be best.” 

“No, please! Just one drink and then I’ll take you home. Promise! See, I ordered your favorite.” He gestured frantically at the table. 

“Thanks for being there for me, Jake.” Amy almost choked on her words and Zoya squeezed her shoulder in support. “But I’m really tired. I’ll see you later. Bye,” she said with a degree of firmness he didn't expect.

“But—” he tried to follow her as Zoya led Amy away. 

“Nice to meet you, Jake,” Asad stepped in front to block his path and view of the girls. He held out his hand to put an end to the discussion. Asad too had to control himself to not crush the jerk’s hand when he shook it. He would have loved to smash the smug bas*tard's face in but getting Amy away from him was more important.

They walked Amy over to their table and the family converged to shield her from Jake’s sightline. A few minutes later they watched the manager and a bouncer come over to Jake’s table and haul him away. Amy sobbed while Ayaan and Omar followed them out to see what they would do to Jake the snake. They saw him get thrown into the back of a police car. Wow, that was fast! 

Fifteen minutes later the manager came over to thank them. “We checked the footage and saw him clearly slip something in her drink. We’ll be getting the drink tested for drugs. They did find more pills on him so it's an open and shut case most likely. He won’t be forgetting this any time soon. Thank you for being alert. I guess the NYPD slogan about say something if you see something is already working. Next round of drinks and dessert are on the house. Enjoy!” 

They whooped as cheers and applause broke out around them.*

 

Asad and Zoya put a distraught though grateful Amy in a taxi. They brushed her profuse thanks aside. "We're just glad to help," they assured her. She decided to not go to her apartment for the night but to her sister’s instead.

As they watched the taxi pull away from the curb and merge into traffic Asad heard Zoya sniff.

“Zoya, are you OK?”

He pulled her into his arms as she began to cry. “It’s OK, baby. You saved her—you did the right thing. I’m so proud of you.” He rocked her to him. He knew she was feeling the adrenaline come crashing down. 

“I just happened to be looking in that direction at the right time. What if we hadn’t seen him spike the drink? She could already be drunk or passed out right now!”

“Shh,” he soothed her. 

“Why are people so ugly, Asad? So sick! All over the world. Remember Tanveer did the same to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s India, America … why do these people think they can take advantage of someone who trusts—?” She felt so beaten. Why did bad things happen to good people?

Asad wiped her tears away with his handkerchief. “They’re jerks, that’s all I can say. They don’t care what damage they do to people around them. Forget about them. I think the world goes around only because there are more good people in it than bad.”  

“But still! That was so horrible—her whole life could've—!” 


Asad framed her indignant face in his hands. “He was just one. We were eleven of us—we took him down, Zoya. Focus on that! He’s probably somewhere in a jail cell right now. And with the security camera footage and Faiz’s recording they only have more evidence against him about his intentions to get her to drink that co*cktail. Think about it—we did good today!”


“We did, didn’t we?” she sniffed and finally smiled. 

“We sure did.”

“That was pure genius to get the manager to check out the CCTV, Mr. Khan! You are becoming more and more Jahanpanah Bond. I love it!”

 

“Good. Now let’s go in.” He grabbed her hand to lead her back in. The parking lot was practically deserted. A few people lounged about in a distant alley.

“Asad?” She held back.

“Hmm?”

“I don’t want to go back in. I’m kinda done with all this. I just want to go home.”

He grinned. “Thank god! Let’s say our byes then, grab a cab and get out of here. Suddenly I just want to hold Zaid in my arms to feel clean again. Besides, you have promises to keep … ”

She blushed. Yes, she had made some wild promises in the backseat of the taxi on their way over. 

“And miles to go before we sleep …” he breathed against her ear. 

“You betcha!”

She gave him a puzzled look when he laughed in her face. 

What?



* I have fictionalized a real incident that happened in a Santa Monica restaurant in Los Angeles earlier this year. In that case it was three women who saw a man slip drugs into his friend's drink when she went to the restroom. Everything else happened the same way: them talking to her in the washroom, the manager checking the CCTV, the guy getting arrested and being charged with a felony.

Jai ho Jhansi ki Ranis of the world!


Song in Title:

Heropanti (2014): "Raat Bhar" 

 








Jan 25

Tere Bin Jeena Kaisa Haan Khudgarzi Hai (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 6 times)

Chapter 131


 

 “Who is Nani’s babyjaan?”

 “Zaaf!” Zaid was trying to break free but Zee Nani had no intentions of letting go. She had only a couple more days with him after all. When she held him in her arms next he’d be bigger, walking, and possibly running away from her. She held on with dear life.

 “Who is Nanu’s cheetah?”

 “ZAAF!” he crowed as he tugged and chewed on Nani’s dupatta.

 “No,” Zoya hollered and wagged a finger at her son.

 “Ammi is Nanu’s cheetah!”

 “Naananananana!” he countered his mama, very conveniently mashing “Nana” and “no” together. He loved it when everyone laughed at his smartypantness. He knew how to work an audience. Zaid clapped for himself. If Anwar Nanu had been here he’d have been fat with pride. But Anwar was at work. He hated being away from his epicenter of wellness but kya karein, kaam to kaam hai he’d say, karna hai—more to console himself than the others.

 “Aapi, show Mr. Khan how you do liptan time-chiptan time!” Zoya called out from the kitchen.

 “What liptan-chiptan thing?” Asad asked.

 “Watch,” Zoya said smugly. She leaned in closer as they watched Zaid with Zeenat. “Aapi tells me that she made up this hugging rhyme when she used to rock me to sleep as a kid.” And also when she soothed a child racked by pain but Zoya didn’t want to remind Asad about her scar or what caused it. “Learn to wear your scars as armor, not chains,” she’d read somewhere and boy, was she ever going to follow that! It was her stronger arm after all, as Asad often teased her, especially when she tried hitting him before he grabbed her hands in his. “Your battle scars are my pride,” he’d rush to add when her pout deepened.

 Now Asad laughed as he watched, rapt, his son being squeezed and rocked by a doting Aapi.

In a song-song voice she crooned: “liptan TIME, chiptan TIME! Nani needs some hugging TIME!”

 “Waaa mmmbaaah aafff taaaiii,” Zaid protested. She had disrupted his drumming on the pots and pans. There was so much kana to be made—Zee Nani just didn’t understand how much work he had to do. She sang on, “liptan-TIME, chiptan-TIME!”

 “I love it!” Asad whispered in Zoya’s ear as she made his coffee. “I wish we too had more liptan and chiptan time,” he added with a grimace.

 “Mr. Khan!” Zoya half-scolded him even though she wished the same. He and Ayaan were leaving in the afternoon to fly back to India. The rest of them would follow in a couple of days.

 The bags were mostly packed. Momentoes and souvenirs already wrapped. The Zaid stuff had quadrupled. And a lot of Zoya stuff was going to be making it across the seas to a new forever home. The lock of hair she’d chopped off as a 7 year-old to impersonate Jo March from Little Women? Yes, that was going to Bhopal.

Some of the Zoya stuff had inspired brand new Zaid stuff. Like the little hands and footprints in clay. Her first grade teacher had sent the kids home for winter break with painted and baked kiddie handprints. Though chipping at the edges it was a cherished momento in the Farooqui household. Asad wanted to take it back to India with them.

 Jeeju’s face said no.

 So Zeenat came up with a brilliant compromise. “You can take it with you if you let us make a new keepsake with Zaid’s hand and footprints!”

 Zoya’s eyes shone. “You mean like the ones in Hollywood of movie stars!”

 “Exactly like that!”

 “Deal,” said Asad.

 It became a half-day affair. They could’ve used polymer clay but Zoya researched a dough, salt and water recipe instead. After kneading and rolling it out in an oval they pressed Zaid’s tiny hand and foot into it. It took a couple of tries to get it right. Because Zaid wanted to eat his hand and foot prints. They signed Zaid’s name on it. With the date. And then it went into the oven to be baked at a low temperature.


The American vacation was drawing to a close. And Zoya didn’t know if she was happy or sad about it.

 “I can’t figure it out. I don’t even feel like cracking any of my genius shayari,” she muttered as she helped Asad with his packing.

 He remembered one of her many useless verses from the past.

 Ek sher aya hai, zara gaur se suniye,

 Ek sher aya hai, zara gaur se suniye,

 Mujhe nahi ata, kisi aur se suniye!

 Asad smirked. She recognized that smirk. A hand bunched up at her indignant waist; a finger waved and stabbed his chest. “Mr. Khan, say it. Say that my shers are perfect and you love them!”

 “Please, your shers are not perfect at all. And I’ve already told you this a million times!”

 “Mr. Khan, I made the most perfect sher in the whole entire world,” Zoya sassed back as she turned to lift up Zaid. “Tell Abbu you’re Ammi’s best sher in the world!”

 Zaid roared, “raaarghh!”

 Asad laughed. Damn. Always right! “You’re right. I do love some of your shers!”

 Asad tugged them into his arms and held tight. They swayed together as one. “I’m going to miss you so much. Even if this judai will be much shorter. But I’ll miss spending time with both of you like this even in India. I’ll be at work. We’ll have only Sundays …”

 “Shh, Mr. Khan. Don’t think about that right now. Just think of the right here and right now and how perfect this moment is.”

 Asad sighed and his lips drooped.

 “What?” Zoya asked. Her skin prickled. She put Zaid back down on his play mat. He scampered off to play with his dump truck.

 Asad turned away to stare out of the window.

 “Asad?”

 “Things might be different when we return—may be even difficult for a while …” he started.

 “Why? What things?”

 “Work. The real estate market is really slowing down. We have a comfortable cushion for now but I don’t know how long we’ll be able to ride this slump out.”

 Zoya exhaled. “We’ll mostly be fine … but you’re worried about the workers, right?” And the half-done housing projects that people had paid into …

 “What if—?” He couldn’t even imagine the worst let alone utter it. Some of the other smaller businesses were already considering freezing worker pay or at least halving it.

 Zoya slipped her arms around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, baby. I wish I could help.” She didn’t know how to convey her trust in him, in his ability to be able to weather even this squall. All she had for now was empty comfort. His worry scared her. In an instant she saw her pillowly cloud nine imploding. Could things really be so bad? Or was this just Asad’s typical low-grade worry about the future that reared its head every now and then?

 “Asad, I have full faith in you. You’ll think of something. We’ll think of something together ... I know!” she snapped her fingers. “We’ll cut back. Downsize—I mean downsize our own lives not lay off people. Zaid doesn’t need so many toys, I certainly don’t need any more sarees and suits …” Her mind raced. Where else could they cut back costs? This trip had turned out to be too expensive, she thought in guilty hindsight. She looked around her room at Zaid’s toy and clothes explosion. Did he really need five baseball caps? The miniature leather jacket and baby Doc Martens that Ayaan had insisted on buying for his biker nephew? “May be we shouldn’t have come on this trip …” She started to mentally tally the costs of the plane tickets, taxis, tours, the private airplane ride to Niagara Falls, the restaurants, theaters, gifts— Initially Asad had wanted to send her, Zaid and Ammi by first class but thank god she’d put her foot down on that one. “It’s such a waste.”

 So business class it had been.

 Zoya worried. Her lips thinned and a monster frown loomed.

 Asad turned to watch her. The clouds parted; a smile broke across his face. He could already hear her mental fix-it gears clicking. This is what he loved about her. Always buoyant. Always planning fixes and solutions. And always thinking about other people. It had taken him too long to see this about her of course. In the beginning he’d seen her infernal perkiness and optimism as annoying. Frivolous even.

 He rested his forehead against hers. “So much faith in me?”

 “Always! You always take care of the tough stuff. I know we’ll find a way.” Zoya touched his cheek. Asad turned his head to kiss her palm. “You’ve been through much worse, seen leaner times as you grew your business, taken risks, made a name for yourself …” Zoya breathed.

 “Hmm …” But back then he never shared his fears of failure with any one. He’d soldiered on, a solitary worrier and warrior. He wouldn’t even think of telling Ammi—she would fret for him, tell him to slow down, to not be so single-minded. With Zoya he didn’t need to voice his deepest concerns. Because mind-reader that she was, she put his thoughts into words, questions mostly—words so extreme and so simple that he breathed easy. Through her he heard his unspoken worries aloud—and once said out loud their potency vanished; they didn’t seem as unsurmountable.

 “You know what,” Zoya said as she stepped back in excitement. “I can arrange free coding workshops for your employess … upgrade skills … diversify …” Her voice fell to a determined mutter. “I really hope we can save some of our new programs like the kids’ savings accounts … ”

Last Republic Day they had announced a new scheme for the employees. If they opened savings accounts in their kids’ names for further education the company would chip in as well. Those were the good days when they were still giddy from celebrating Zaid’s monthly anniversaries. The families were closer than ever. All traces of Tanveer had been wiped clear and they were all starting new chapters of hope.

 Plans. Plans. Plans. Already Zoya’s eyes were sparkling with a dogged glint. Already she was moving to punch into her iPad. Asad's smile widened. And that was the best part about sharing his dread with her: whatever the problem, in the next instant she would rattle off a million solutions—many zany, but some pure gold. Thank god he had learned to not bottle up his worries, not be as emotionally challenged as she used to often accuse him.

 Asad snagged her arm and pulled her back into him. “We’ll be OK. It’s not the end times as yet. I might be overthinking this. But … I only wanted you to be prepared. Just in case. And don’t tell …”

 “Ammi or any one else as yet?”

 He smiled again. “We may eventually have to discuss things with Ammi …”

 “Yup, because Ammi’s going to figure things out pretty quickly! And Asad, I’m sure she’ll be supportive.”

 “I just don’t want her to worry.”

 “She’s a mom. It’s her job to worry.”

 “I know. The thing to remember is that no matter what, we’ll be fine. We have each other.”

 Zoya hugged him tight. “Good job, Mr. Khan! That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you for the past half hour!” She reached up to kiss him hard on the lips. “You know I’m always right, but it’s OK to take your own sweet time to figure that out!” She didn’t call him Tubelight Ahmed Khan for nothing.

 “You are too much,” Asad said following up with another kiss.

 “And you love me for it?” she asked when they surfaced.

 “Koi shaq?”

 “No shaq!”


 “Have a safe flight,” her text said and Asad knew. He knew because her text was followed up with just one heart emoji not the usual string of hearts, hugs and kisses. She was upset. And hurt. He’d become so used to these symbols that this new text seemed naked … exposed.

 The in-flight announcement to turn off all electronic and mobile devices came on.

 “Sir, can you please switch your device to airplane mode?” The flight attendant hovered over him.

 His expectant thumb paused over the keypad. With a sigh Asad sent Zoya a quick couple of heart emojis (something he’d probably never done before—after all he’d turned his Jahanpanah nose up at these fluffy symbols of idiotic flair. He felt that emojis were lazyass substitutes for real emotion. “No, they’re not!” His wife would argue. “They’re a visual expression of genuine emotion,” she’d insist. “They’re dumb,” Asad would say. “They’re cute and super adorbs,” she’d end all argument and stop his eyeroll midway by planting the juiciest and realest emoji kiss on him. Of course. That was half the reason why he loved arguing with her. And she knew it too).

 He thumbed the airplane mode on. He had a long flight to ponder his punishment.

 

It had all begun harmlessly enough. OK, may be she was PMSing and that’s why she was a walking bundle of emotional messiness today. Or the impending goodbyes were taking a toll on her. Zoya really was her anti-shayari self today. Her tears were barely banked as Asad and Ayaan checked in their bags and put away their passports. And then at the gate just as Asad was handing back Zaid to her after one last cuddle, it happened. The first domino toppled.

 “Asad Ahmed Khan! Is that you, is that really you?”

 The distinctly girly voice already had Zoya’s hackles going up on reflex. But then Zaid started to fuss so she was distracted. Annoyed, and distracted. By the time she collected herself she saw Asad extracting himself from braceleted arms and a blur of painted acrylic nails. Zoya saw red. Redder than the nail paint red. Zaid lifted his head off her shoulder at the low growl that escaped his mom’s lips.

 “Aahmmaaama mmaaamma,” he patted her cheek.

And all of Zoya’s itchy rancor seeped away to be replaced with heavy gloom. Her heart fell to her feet. Had she been her usual Zoya self this wouldn’t have pinched as much. She would have even noticed Asad’s mild frown. Seen him putting distance between himself and this woman. That clear-eyed Zoya might have even laughed at herself for thinking that some woman was attempting to put a move on her husband.

 But the usual Zoya was on a day off. This was her weepy-senti green-eyed twin. This Zoya suddenly felt plain-Janey in her ripped jeans, rumpled shirt and ballet flats. The pale yellow linen shirt had felt crisp and cool in the morning. This was late afternoon and she left just as limp. Why had she rolled the sleeves in a fit of reckless abandon? Was her scar showing? And was that a stain of baby food on her shirtfront? The stain-master wasn’t much help either. Zaid’s mid-afternoon nap had been disrupted by his dad and Chachu’s departure so he was letting them all have it. He squawked; his sticky-drooly fingers tangled in Zoya’s hair. She winced, mortified.

 All this may well have taken a minute or five. But to Zoya it felt just a little short of eternity. The conversation around her was a cackle of hangry buzzards.

 “Zoya? … This is Nilima. Mallik, remember? His sister.” Asad started the introductions.

 She vaguely remembered the friend who couldn’t come to the wedding but had sent a beautiful blue Delft ginger jar as a gift.

 “She was a year younger than us in college,” Asad went on.

 Somehow Zoya managed to shake Nilima’s hand without making too much of a fool of herself. She even allowed herself to be enveloped in a perfumed hug. Zaid sensed that he needed to rescue his mom so he turned on the boyish charm full blast. And as Nilima and Zaid flirted, somehow Asad figured out exactly what was going on in his wife’s head. That tiny frown and plump pout were after all a dead giveaway. But there was no time to reassure her. They were already running late. The long security check line snaked for miles around the pillars. Travel always made him tense and having to see Zaid fret and Zoya upset made his stomach knot even more.

 “I’ll call from Istanbul,” was all he was able to whisper to her as they were swept away in the moving line. “I love you,” is what he should have really said.

 Zoya watched the chasm between them stretch. Nilima was chattering away with Ayaan and Asad nodded distractedly as she asked him something. Her flight to London was 25 minutes after theirs. As he turned to look back Asad saw Zoya’s face—no dimple in sight. He waved to her and saw her hug Zaid closer. He pulled out his phone. “Don’t look at me like that,” he texted.

“You’re killing me.” “I love you,” he added. “Already missing you.”

 He didn’t know why each text felt guilty or why he wanted to reassure Zoya so bad. He’d done nothing wrong. And Nilima had always been a demonstrative girl. That’s how she met and greeted and talked to anybody, male or female—with hugs, backslaps and an arm around the waist or shoulder. If people were bothered by it they were eventually worn down by her innocent appeal. Like a heat-seeking cat she liked to drape herself over people without the slightest qualm about decorum. She was like that in college, had been scolded often enough by her brother and had broken many a heart. Apparently she hadn’t changed.

 Asad tried calling Zoya’s phone but when she answered she sounded harried. He could hear Zaid crying. “Zoya, I—”

 “Mr. Khan, I can’t talk. He won’t—Zaid, baby … !”

 It was no use. Zaid hollered louder; Asad heard the tears in her voice too.

 “Call me later?” he said.

 “ … I’ll try.” But she hadn’t called. Just texted. That text weighed him down; it became a drip-feed of acid reflux for the rest of the flight.


 By the time they landed in Istanbul he had worked himself into a slow simmer of self-righteous rage—after everything they’d been through together how could she even get upset at such a small thing? It was just an old friend. Just a hug. She already knew how he felt about those things. To be jealous of that? Ayaan turned to look at him as Asad repressed a snort. Had he ever given her a single reason to suspect that he might stray? Did she not trust him? It wasn’t even his fault! He didn’t even do anything. Then why was Zoya behaving as if he’d done something wrong!

 That’s it! She could keep waiting for him to call because he sure as hell wasn’t going to.



 They may well have been the longest 96 hours of her life.

When she saw those twin heart emojis before he switched off, raw guilt burned through Zoya too. There was no doubt that she’d been a complete idiot. A total fool. How could she even—?

In the car she hid her face in her hands and nearly wept. Zaid tried to pluck her hands away.

 “Beee-a-aaa-buuu!” he scolded, assuming she was not following the rules of the game. He covered his face with chubby fingers and Zoya smiled.

 “Peek-a-boo,” she said softly.

 Zaid giggled and flung his hands away. Finally Ammi had remembered how to play the game. Indedly fooliss to forget! La mya wutz wong wi yuuu!

 And then Asad hadn’t called from Istanbul. When she tried to call his cell he wasn’t available. Or he wasn’t talking to her.

 She felt sick to her stomach.



 “Bas, one more day and then you’ll also go away,” Zeenat pouted the next day.

 “Hmm?”

 “Zoyajaan, so distracted? Not even backchatting your bechari Aapi?”

 “Aapi, aap bechari nahin …”

 Zeenat noticed her droop again.

 “What happened, baby? What’s got you so upset? Mat dukhi kiya karo apni Aapi ko! Did you fight with Asad?”

 Zoya sighed. Damn her face that couldn’t hide her emotions. It reflected every moody ripple. It was no point hiding things from Aapi—she’d nag till she had her answers. Or jump to absolutely wrong conclusions.

 “It’s just a little something, Aapi. No big deal. Main wahan ja kar sab theek kar doongi!” And those familiar words brought her confidence roaring back. This really was nothing. She and Mr. Khan had gone through much, much worse. And just as he always said a maddened “woh bechari nahin hain!” about her, Zoya would stop feeling bechari about herself.

    

“Now you think of making things right! Why did you waste the whole day with such a long face then?”

 Zoya hugged Zeenat. “Sorry, Aapi! Your words made me realize it just now.” She held her ears in apology, “lijiye, no more long face. Ab nahin dukhi karoongi!”

 Zeenat grinned too at sighting the beloved dimple. “Zaroor you must have done something silly to upset Asad. He loves you so much aur tum sata rahi hogi usko!”

 Zoya blushed. “This time you’re right Aapi. I did do something stupid. But promise, I’ll fix it. You know me!”

 “I know, I know Zoya Farooqui kuch bhi kar sakti hai!” Zeenat said as she finished oiling and braiding Zoya’s hair. “Come, it’s Zaid’s turn for maalish!”

 Zaid chuckled and crawled away at a fast clip making his Zee Nani give chase. Zoya tucked her chin over her bent knees as she watched them play. Yes, she would make it right. She grinned to herself. You can be as Akdu as you want Mr. Khan, but Zoya Farooqui’s on her way to sweep and swipe all your frowns away. Just you wait, Jahanpanah. Just you wait.

 She had a few days to plot her apology.



 Asad hadn’t come to pick them up at the airport.

 “Bhaijaan had an important meeting he couldn’t miss,” Ayaan said as he greeted them.

 Zoya pasted a smile on her face for Dilshad’s sake. “I knew,” she said. And she did know in her heart didn’t she? She hadn’t been lying. But her heart had still twisted funny at the news. But then she smiled a real smile to greet her Abbu and Aunty.

 Zaid was swallowed up in hugs and kisses, duas and protections against buri nazars.

 “You’ve grown so big,” Razia cooed. She had been so worried that Zaid would forget them. “You remember Chhoti Nani? Nanu?”

 Of course he remembered. He pulled at Nanu’s glasses and yanked Razia’s dupatta off her head to gnaw at it like he loved to do—it was just as if he’d met them yesterday.

 “Badmash! Bilkul nahin bhula, mere jaan!” Chhoti Nani gushed with pride.

 Happily they all were whisked away to the Siddiqui house for a lavish lunch and a long-awaited reunion with Dobby. And there was a certain rocking horse that needed to be test-ridden. They would have brought the cat to the airport with them but he refused the indignity of being forced into a crate. Dobby sulked and hid himself for the rest of the morning.

 But he came barreling out when he heard Zaid’s gurgle. He launched himself at Zoya and complained loudly as she giggled and tried to cuddle him.

 “Hi kittycat,” Zoya called.

 Dobby bawled and howled as if he was being torn apart by demons. No amount of kissing or kissing noises would calm him down.

 Razia laughed as she wiped a tear. “He did that to Asad too.”

 “Hamari takleef bhi zahir kar raha hai!” Siddiqui Saheb added.

 And then Dobby sighted Zaid in Nuzzhat’s arms. Beast and baby lunged at each other. They squabbled and babbled at once. Zaid yanked a furry ear. Dobby yowled. Then Dobby licked Zaid’s head to wash him and make sure the boy smelled catright. Zaid dodged and giggled. But there was no keeping Dobby from completing his homecoming ritual.

 The family trooped inside to freshen up and feast.



 This wasn’t going to be a seduction. It would be an offering.

 Zoya wore the pink saree—his first gift to her. But now her calm was ebbing; her confidence beating a retreat. Asad hadn’t come home for dinner. It was well past 10 pm. She’d even cried a bit as she put Zaid to bed. If he was this angry then how would she be able to break through to him? He had Facetimed with Zaid several times on Dilshad’s phone and Ayaan’s. But he hadn’t said a word to her over the phone. Not sent a single text. She’d paced in the backyard. Sat huddled on the bench. Remembered how forlorn this bench had felt on their mehendi night. He’d shut her out that night too. And another night when he’d struck her and—

 No, she wouldn’t think of those nights. She’d think of the hundreds of nights since then. When he’d surprised her with blueberry cheesecake. Hung the moon for her; put his ring on her. Twice. Once on their mehendi night.

 And then the night when he had got her new forever ring engraved with Qubool Hai … the two Os looped together.

 Zoya twisted the ring on her finger.

 Back inside when she heard Asad’s key in the door she felt as nervous as a bride. In her mind she had imagined herself running to him. And he would take care of the rest. But now she wasn’t so sure. His continued rejection had begun to chafe. Her eyes burned. Zoya’s fingers dug into the sofa back as she saw him enter and close the door behind him. Her eyes drank him in. He looked exhausted.

 “Hi …” she croaked.

 Asad nodded. A faithless tear spilled. She watched him move closer. Hope swelled. But then he walked past her toward their room.  

 “I’m sorry,” she whispered to his back. She yearned to hear his voice, crave his reassurance. Asad paused at their door. “I missed you so much! Please, Mr. Khan, I’m—”

 May be all she should have said was I love you.

 Zoya didn’t know she’d been crying till he took her in his arms. And then she really cried.

 “Shh,” he soothed.  

 But this once she couldn’t bear him holding her. Zoya broke free to run to the bathroom.

 “Zoya!”

 That moment when he’d walked past her was a slap to her face. His rejection writ large on his stiff back broke her. She’d wanted to run to him and hold him from the back. “Don’t be mad at me,” she wanted to say. But her feet had grown roots; her heart an anchor.

 When Asad walked through the unlocked bathroom door and lifted her off the floor to carry her into their room she put up a token struggle. But her body wouldn’t cooperate. It melted seeking his warmth, his touch. But her chin wouldn’t lift off her chest as she wept quietly. He put her on the bed and knelt by her side. Taking her hand in his Asad kissed the top. He’d switched on her bedside lamp and watched her, bewitched.

 She looked more beautiful than Asad remembered. Her eyes were still downcast. The pearl and diamond choker that he’d given her on their wedding night quivered at her throat.

 “Babe, please don’t cry. You know what that does to me.”

 When he saw that tiny frown and the emerging pout Asad almost chuckled. Oh yeah, she was back. He was about to get an earful of Allah Miyans and what’s wrong with yous. Asad’s heart thrilled. All anger and misgivings fled. They were replaced with a glow of wellbeing. His world was right again. Everyone he loved under the same roof—Ammi upstairs, Zaid fast asleep in his crib, Dobby in his bed surrounded with new American toys, and Zoya’s breath mingling with his own. What else could he have asked for? Why had he squandered dear moments in passing doubt?

 His kiss on her hand said it all—apology and forgiveness mingled. When Zoya looked up into his face she saw herself in his eyes.

 There. What they had surged back. The earth corrected its overtilt. Their eyes drank each other in erasing eons and abysses.

 “Are you OK?” Asad asked two-three intense seconds later.

 She loved that question—so did her dimple. “Umm hmm, now I am!” she whispered.

 He laughed. Softly. No micro mini smile this time. “Welcome back!”

 She threw her arms around his neck, “it’s great to be back. I missed you, us, so much!”

 Asad held her tight and rocked her to him. They wouldn’t be any missing any more if he could help it. He felt his tiredness seep away. And Zoya felt his tensed neck muscles relax. Because she knew, when he punished her, he punished himself more.

 They mended in each other’s arms—becoming whole again.



 “I got scared,” she murmured when Asad finally asked her.

Together they worked in the kitchen heating the food, setting the table, lighting the candles and stealing hugs and kisses between breaks.

 “You got jealous?” 

 

“Super jealous,” Zoya admitted with an embarrassed grin.

 “Why?”

 How could she tell him how she felt? She didn’t half-understand it herself. They settled down at the table, chairs and arms touching, as they fed each other.

 “Umm … voh …” she hesitated.

Asad wrapped her in a tight side-hug. “It’s not because you don’t trust me, I know that,” he said. “Or at least I figured that out by the time I landed in India.” He felt embarrassed about his temper too. It was all so unnecessary.

 “When Nilima stepped up and hugged you … I felt … drab …completely out of your league in front of her,” Zoya finally told him. She’d looked so well put together.

 “What? Zoya, no!”

 “Yes.”

 “But how could you even think that! Have I ever made you feel—”

 “Never!” she rushed to cover his mouth. She felt at a loss to explain again. “It’s just that, sometimes I wonder if you should’ve married someone beautiful and elegant … and not a madcap like me!”

 Asad burst out laughing. “A musibat mohtarma, you mean?”

 “Asad!”

 “Shh! You’ll wake up the whole house!”

 “See, I’m loud too,” Zoya wailed.

 “Too loud,” Asad teased with a raised eyebrow.

 She blushed and swatted his shoulder, “Mr. Khan!”

 Asad kissed her palm. “Let’s get this straight—you’re beautiful and elegant and gorgeous to me. Yes, you’re a madcap, but I love that about you. I love everything about you. So no more crazy ideas like this, OK?”

 “But I’m so … so uncoordinated, she looked so dignified—”

 “I wasn’t meant to fall in love with dignified. I was meant to fall in love with a badtameez ladki.”

 “Asad, you don’t understand!”

 “Then make me understand because you’re right, I don’t. I don’t understand why you’d feel that way after all that we have, all we’ve been together.”

 She grew quiet. “It’s hard to explain. When I was young I thought that once true love was declared and shared there would be no problems, no jealousy, no resentment between couples. But …”

 “Go on.”

 “But that day nothing mattered except my sudden fear that I wasn’t good enough for you. I felt shabby in my clothes in front of Nilima. My scar was showing—that made me feel worse.”

 “Aww babe, come on! You know that none of that is true. Not good enough for me? You know how often I’ve thought I wasn’t good enough for you? The terrible things I said and did …”

 “No Asad! What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t realize that it’s normal to feel jealous inspite of a happily-ever-after marriage.”

 “But I don’t even want you to think that way! There’s no way that any of that could be true. And Nilima? I think of her like Najma, she’s like a sister to me.”

 “I know that,” Zoya tried to calm him down. “It’s just that at that moment this zombie thing flared inside me and took over. All logic evaporated and I could only compare myself to her and find myself lacking.”

 “But you’re not! There’s nothing to compare.” He saw her shaking her head.

“OK fine, what could I have done differently to not make you feel that way?”

 “Nothing! Because this wasn’t even about you. It’s something that could happen now and then. A simple chemical reaction. Just don’t be mad at me for feeling this way.”

 He put his arm around her and gathered her closer. “So I’m supposed to put up with jealous tantrums whenever they strike?”

 “Yup, it’s in the nikahnama’s fine print.”

 “Am I allowed to be jealous if someone hugs you?” His teasing smile dipped. Asad flashed back to that moment when Omar had given Zoya a bear hug when he first came to Bhopal, and how he’d died a little on the inside. His fist had ached from wanting to smash something. Then a few days later at the Thai restaurant he’d fantasized about removing every single bone from Omar’s body because he’d been over-attentive to Zoya—holding her hand, kissing the top of her head, hugging her. Oh boy, jealousy was a stinger. If Zoya felt even an ounce of what he’d felt those days …

 He gripped her hand tight. “Fine, be jealous if you have to. But remember this: I fell in love with you at first sight, not with any other woman. I said Qubool Hai to you, and no other woman. You’re the mother of my son, my soulmate.”

“Really?”

 “Really. Remember, even high on bhaang I told you how much I was attracted to you. And no one’s better than you at being Mrs. Asad Ahmed Khan.”

 “Tell me more about how I’m the perfect Mrs. Asad Ahmed Khan,” Zoya said dreamily, dropping her chin in hand.

 “I said nothing about being perfect. You need your hearing checked, Mrs. Khan!”

 “Asad!”

 “I love you and all your perfect imperfections,” he breathed. “You make me look forward to every waking moment, and I sleep with a grateful heart every night.” He kissed her. “I’m sorry I got mad at you.”

 “If this is how you make up for it I command you to get mad every week from now!” She so loved how he wooed her back—reeled her in, more like it. But she’d take the bait any time if she always found him at the other end.

 “I love you, Mr. Khan.”

 “Good, because I need you to show me how much.”

 She giggled. How much he’d missed that sound! Why did he have to be a grumpy ass for so long? A quicker make up would have burned less blood. They rushed to put the dishes away and clear the table. He continued to tease her as they worked. “I’m allowed to be jealous of Dhoni? Your Ranveers and Ranbirs … Fawad Khan and that Benito Batch—”

 “Benedict CUMBERBATCH!” Zoya clasped her hands to her heart, face glowing.

 “Shh,” he rushed to cover her mouth yet again.

 “But yes, Mr. Khan, you have my full blessing to be as jealous as you want—see, what a great attitude I have about it? You could learn from me and not be an Akdu the next time I’m jealous!”

 He splashed her with water from the faucet because he didn’t have a comeback. Zoya giggled as she backed away from him. Asad caught her hand to pull her close.

 “Forget all jealousy,” he said, voice lowering an octave. “I want to make love to you, feel your skin against mine … I need you. I need to be inside you.” Her dilating eyes made him harder.

 She loved how he could make her laugh and then have her moaning with want the next second.

Zoya gripped his collar, “now, Asad please,” she begged.

 Asad scooped her up in his arms and marched to their room but they had to come back to switch off the lights and blow out the candles. They couldn’t resist soft kisses and nicks on the way. Long kisses and quick unsnapping of buttons and hooks followed. Good thing she hadn’t pinned her saree or it would’ve ripped. His mouth at her throat had her hissing. His hands at her bre@sts had her raw with need. They fell into bed a tangle of heated limbs, their bodies golden in the lamplight.

 “Asad,” she moaned. “I love you so much.”

 “I love you more,” he said between deep mouth-tugs at her nipple as his hand dipped lower. She was wet and wild with need and nearly keened. He had to cover her mouth but she shook off his hand and cried out in delight when he entered her, head thrashing to the side.  

 "Oh god, Zoya you don't know what you do to me—!" Those sounds she made made him thick with desire.

 Her hands clawed the sheets as she savored that familiar weight, that new and age-old sensation. Her hips had started dancing, her knees—

 “Oh my god,” Zoya whispered as she tried to cover them with the sheet.

 “What?” Asad asked, distracted.

 “He’s watching us.”

 “Let him.” Dobby had seen them having se*x a million times before.

 “No, Zaid!” she hissed.

 Asad half-turned towards the crib but saw nothing. “You’re imagining things.”

 “No, wait. Watch.”

 Biting off cursewords, a dissatisfied Asad pulled out of her, and with the sheet to their chins they watched. Soon they spied a tiny pair of hands gripping the crib rails. They climbed higher and bam! a tousled head and gleaming eyes appeared over the headrail.

 “Oh my god Asad, he’s standing!”

 Zaid smiled at them.

 “Baaa bbaaa mmmaaa,” he babbled.

 “Hey Champ!” Asad crowed. “You’re standing!”

 Zoya jumped out of bed trying her best to cover herself with the discarded saree. She was clapping softly for this crowning achievement. Zaid tried to clap for himself too but he let the rail go and plonk! He fell back down on his bottom.

 This time when he wobbled as he stood Zoya swept him into her arms to kiss and hug him. She handed him to Asad and dashed to pull his shirt on. Asad kissed his son and they high-fived. Zoya got into bed with them. Zaid started climbing over them.

 “Zaid, time for bed,” Asad said as he tried to hand him off to Zoya.

 “Unnnn nnanaaaannaa.”

 Dobby had jumped up on the bed too. He circled his family and meowed in pleasure. Finally! Everything was back to being right.

 Dobby and Zaid wrestled. Zaid rolled on the bed happy and content. He tried to grab his toes in his footie pajamas. He gurgled and burbled some more. Asad looked at Zoya in dismay.

 Zoya giggled again. “It’s play time,” she said.

 “It’s bloody midnight!” he hissed.

 “It’s called jet lag, Mr. Khan. He’ll be up for at least 2-3 hours.”

 Asad flopped back on his pillow and squeezed his forehead. “No!”

 “Yes.”

 If he’d been more coherent she’d have heard him say: “Incredibly foolish!” 





Song in Title: 

Kailash Kher: "Teri Diwani"





Feb 7

Mera Gajra, Tumko Bhanvra, Na Bana De Toh Kehna (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 7 times)

 


Chapter 132


 

Well over an hour into Zaid’s jet lag and Asad remained taut with unslaked desire. At first he marveled at Zoya’s infinite patience as she played with Zaid, baby-talked with him, read to him his favorite Poky Little Puppy story. She even unpacked his dump truck—this was his latest joy. Sitting on his haunches Zaid drove the truck all over his Ammi Abbu’s bed making engine sounds with great concentration.  

“Drrrooo-drrrrrrr… ” he hummed loudly to himself.

Dobby made up the rest of the cavalcade as he marched behind—he had important side-lick duties to fulfill after all. But Asad’s patience began to snap—for the past half hour he’d been eyeing Zoya hungrily. Initially she had giggled but now she blushed each time she caught his gaze. 

His eyes ate her up. 

He never understood how she could look that se*xy in his shirt. She had been about to roll up the sleeves but he wouldn't have it. "Leave it!" "But they get in the way," she whined. "Deal with it," he'd growled. He loved to see the cuffs swallow her hands as she did both her husband's and son's bidding. Now, for over an hour he’d been watching that shirt ride over her creamy thighs … He wanted to walk his fingers on those thighs … lick their insides … leave a firetrail of bite marks that wouldn’t fade for days. … Now the shirt exposed her cleavage as she bent over to play with their son. He could see the shadowy outline of her nipples … He wished he could take the weight of her bre@sts in both his palms … bend his head to take a pert nipple in his mouth … 

He groaned with each impatient push-back of the sleeves … and hissed each time her legs parted hoping to catch a mouth-watering glimpse of waiting treasures and pleasures. Damned shirt! It teased him more by hiding her body parts than revealing them.  

“Unbutton the shirt,” he said, tone low, gravelly with barely restrained desire. 

“Asad!” 

“Do it.” His eyes slitted as he saw her nipples peak under the shirt. He had already sucked on them but they begged another laving—not so tender this time around.  

“But the kids—”

“Now.”

Zoya undid one button.

“All of them.”

“Asad, no!” 

“Zoya …” 

She bit off a moan at that roughened tone—it promised musky delights, slowed-down and long-drawn-out foreplay.

“Drruuuuuu rrruuuuhhhh,” Zaid chanted.

Zoya undid the second button and heard Asad suck his breath. 

“Next …” 

“No,” she smiled when she saw his face. “Come and undo them for me,” she teased arching her back just enough to drive him crazier still. 

“I would but I don’t want my son to see his dad in such a state of arousal. It might scar him for life.”

Zoya’s smile evaporated. She didn’t dare look in her husband’s lap even though he’d been covered up with the sheet. She undid the rest of the buttons and heard Asad exhale. 

“Duuurrrrrruuummmm!” 

Dobby lay down on the bed to wash himself. All this exercise had tired him out. Parades were fun but exhausting.

Zoya was sitting diagonally opposite Asad as he leaned against the headboard, coiled, hard. To stop Zaid from going too close to the bed’s edge, she leaned to her side. The shirtfront gaped open exposing her bre@st. She rushed to cover up. 

“Don’t!” 

“But—”

“Dhhhhuuuuuuurrrrr… rrrrr.”

“You are so beautiful … I could watch you all night.”

“Won’t Zaid be scarred by this nudity?”

“No, because this is natural for him. He’s seen you like this a million times. And for me … this sight is magic. Open the other side too.”

She did and Asad groaned out loud. He would insist that she sleep only in his shirts from now on. … And leave them unbuttoned. He’d fu*ck her hard in it and then wear it to work the next day … 

He cleared his throat. “Later … I want you to ride me.” Her eyes widened. “And then when I’m fully inside you I want you to dip your nipple into my waiting mouth.”

“Oh god Asad, you’re killing me.” 

“Good. Because you already slayed me ages ago. When I’m with you I can think of only one thing. When I’m away I think of nothing else. Zoya … you’ve ruined me!” 

She couldn’t wait for Zaid to call it a day. She was just as impatient as her husband and wanted nothing else but to make sweet, rough love … right now. And as if Zaid read his mother’s mind he crawled over to her and settled into her lap for his bedtime feed. Zoya wrapped him in her arms and looked at Asad.

“Good boy,” he said softly. He patted Dobby and nudged him off the bed. The cat was quite content to assume that he was being called a good boy.

Asad watched Zoya rise and pad over to the crib when Zaid fell asleep at her bre@st. As she gently lowered the baby in Asad watched his shirt ride up her butt. Oh god, he bit off another groan, that ass was so fine. He flung the sheet aside and rose to hold Zoya by her waist. Together they watched Zaid’s half-moon lashes quiver and feather shut. Their hands joined over the tiny chest that rose and fell with each angel breath. 

“Goodnight baby, sleep tight,” Zoya whispered.

“Sleep long,” Asad added.  

And then he could wait no more. As she turned to face him and nudged his erection Asad grabbed her ass with both hands to lift her up in his arms. He carried her to the closet and pressed her against the full-length mirror. 

Zoya gripped his hair as she rested her elbows on his shoulders. “Oh god yes Asad, take me, take me now, please!”

“Not so fast,” he teased. He plunged in; she was so wet for him. He pumped a couple of times and pulled out.  

Anticipating a delicious orga*sm Zoya had tried to fling her head back but she was trapped against the glass.  

“Asad!” she squeaked in protest now as he withdrew.

But he was in the mood for tormenting her just as she had done him for the last hour and a half.  “What?” he asked innocently. He loved hearing her say it. 

“Fu*ck me, hard!” 

“You’re a mind reader,” Asad pressed hard against her swollen bud, rigid and barely in control himself. “Like this?”

“Ohmygod yes, yes, like this,” she moaned in surrender. “Do it again,” she begged.

Asad twisted his hips to spear and rub her cli*toris. She clenched her thighs in anticipation of an ecstatic release. As she grew used to the rhythmic friction, he stopped again. She dug her nails into his shoulders. “Mr Khan, you’re killing me on purpose.”

“That’s what you get for killing me, Mrs. Khan. For playing with your son for an eternity and not caring about your husband’s needs!”

She squeezed his hips between her thighs trying to suction him in. But no, Asad was not going to play this game. He had other games planned. She swooped to lick his neck tasting the remnants of his cologne and nipped at the hollow of his throat. He jerked and groaned but remained undeterred. Asad carried her back and laid her down at the foot of the bed. Her knees bent and feet arched at the edge of the bed. The shirtfront flopped open revealing her to his hot gaze once again. Unable to help himself, Asad dipped his head to suck her nipple long and hard. Zoya jerked and gasped as that trademark tug zinged south. She reached out waiting for him to take her but he stepped back and ordered, “not so fast. Touch yourself.”

She hissed in frustration. “Asad!” 

“Do it! You promised you’d do it for me when you were in New York.” 

She did remember her promise. On the plane ride over she’d even vowed to do anything … everything to please him. Even this. But right now she felt shy. Horny and shy. Asad took her hand in his, sucked her index and middle fingers and ordered, “now.” 

And as she widened her knees and stroked her wet and swollen flesh Asad’s eyes followed her fingers as if hypnotized. He watched her press her nub and swirl her fingertips over it. Her ring flashed for a second catching the light. Up and down and round and round, she went. Clockwise. Then anti-clockwise. He must’ve died a thousand deaths. She had begun to sigh and moan as she watched his face. Her pulse raced when he stilled her hand. This time he did reward her waiting. Asad bent his head between her legs to swirl his tongue over her heated skin. Gripping her thighs with both hands he ran his tongue over the inside of one. She flailed. And slowly he started to retrace the wet trail. He stopped midway and sucked hard. So hard that she bucked. Her fingers spasmed in his hair. “Asad … Asad, please … Don’t torment me.” 

Her breathlessness inflamed him ... Her beseeching skin, dewy, awaited a million balmy caresses. He ran his tongue up and down her entrance. As her moans grew louder he inserted two fingers to feather her g-spot and tilted his head to lick her into a frenzied release. He felt the rushing tremors and knew she was ready. As she was about to climax he withdrew his fingers and rammed inside her to pump furiously, finally home.

Shock and pleasure mingled.

Hands braced on each side of her face Asad bent over her to stare into her eyes.  

“Milk me, babe,” he said through gritted teeth. She did and he nearly went cross-eyed. Her fingernails dug into his slick shoulders as she crested.  

She careened. And crashed.  

“Are you safe?” 

“Yes, come inside me.” 

“Sure?”

“Yes, Asad please!” She felt him shudder and his satisfied grunt warmed her from the inside out. 

“I love you.”

His harsh breaths fanned the damp hair at her temple.

 

“I’m meeting an investor tonight.” Asad called her from work a week later. “ I want you you to meet her.” 

“Her?” Zoya asked, surprised. She managed to cover up her irritation quite well, she thought.  

“Un-hunh. I’ve known her for a few years now, we’ve become good friends … she insists that she wants to meet my wife.”

Zoya was not liking a single word coming out of his mouth. A her? So soon after the Nilima episode! How was she ever going to stop feeling jealous of all the hers in Asad’s life? 

“What’s her name?” she asked.

“You’ll find out soon enough. Tonight. 7:30. Ask the driver to drop you and take the car back. We’ll come back together.”  

We’ll come back together only if I’m feeling charitable, Mr. Khan, Zoya fumed as she ended the call. Dang, and he’d refused to tell her the woman’s name so now Zoya couldn’t even google this “her” person. 

She tried to worm the information out of Prasad. “Who is the guest Mr. Khan is meeting tonight? I want to buy a gift for her so I need to know some things about her.” Like her name, age, weight, pedigree, skin tone, nail color, shoe size, hairstyle etc.

“Sorry Ma’am, I don’t know. Sir hasn’t given me any details.”

Hmmphfff!

Damn you, Asad. It’s like he was taunting her on purpose.

He refused to answer any of her texts as she fished for information tidbits. 

Unnhhhh!

Fine, she thought. You asked for war, you’ll get one. Get your engines ready, Mr. Khan.

 

 

Asad hid another grin behind his hand as the meeting ended. He’d just read yet another of his rattled wife’s sabre-rattling texts. Since his cryptic phone call to her this morning, he’d been inundated with questions, moody ramblings and grave rumblings. A few of them had made him laugh out loud enough for Prasad to peek in and ask if Sir was okay.

You bet he was. Little did Prasad know that Sir was enjoying tormenting his wife. 

“Remember Mr. Khan,” she said in one of her initial texts, “you weren’t meant to fall in love with dignified. You were meant to fall in love with a badtameez ladki, a musibat mohtarma!”

“And that’s me!!!” she added with a line of huffing and snorting emojis—and the cutest pouty-face selfie. 

When he didn’t respond he got another dose of Zoya dramarama: “I remember someone distinctly telling me a few days ago: ‘I fell in love with you at first sight, not with any other woman. I said Qubool Hai to you, and no other woman. You're the mother of my son, my soulmate.’ "  

Asad still didn’t respond even though he was helpless with longing.

“And that no one’s better at being Mrs. Asad Ahmed Khan!”

Wow, his wife had quite a memory, Asad thought. He wondered what else she’d throw at him from her memory bank. He didn’t have to wait long. At this rate her thumbs must be getting a serious work out. She was now writing mini novellas: 

“Once on a stormy night, Mr. Khan, high on bhaang told Ms. Farooqui: ‘Agar aap itni badtameez hain toh mujhe aap itni achchi kyun lagti hain? Aap mein itni kashish kyun? Mere khwabon par aapke saaye kyun hain? Kyun meri tanhayiyon mein khalal dalti hain aap? Kyun mere andheron mein roshni ban ke aati hain?’ ” 

Asad smiled. Fully, deeply. The fog from that night had cleared a bit over the years. He didn’t remember his exact words from bhaang raat. But he did remember the tightness in his chest and the passionate roller-coasterness of that night sprinkled with stardust … and rain, pakoras and distant music; there'd been a deep pink saree ... the flash of an impish dimple (of that he was dead sure) ... and hadn't there also been a glimpse of the barest back that he’d wanted to touch … to kiss and suck? 

Did she know that one reminder would trigger a hundred other memories for him?

“Jab main smile karti hoon, toh dimple padta hai, yahan.”  

How did he remember that so clearly? 

“… aur iss dimple se main kisi ka bhi katl kar sakti hoon."

“Iss dimple se dilwalon ka katl hota hoga. Patthar dil walon par iska koi assar nahin hota hai!” he’d lied another day taunting her for always calling him patthar dil. 

 

Crazy woman! She’d tried to recreate the bhaang raat another time to remind him of his reluctant confession … She’d made pakoras for him. And then worn her Ammi’s saree to dance at his window.

“Mr. Khan, you better not be toying with me,” she now yelled through yet another text a half hour later. Violent emojis of knives, guns and bombs followed. He was dying to call her but didn’t. Let her roast a little more.

And a selfie followed that had him beaming in pleasure at the caption below: “Here I am, bre@st-feeding YOUR son! Remember, flesh and blood of your loins … and MINE??!!”

Indeed. Asad was loving this angry recreation of their best moments. Trust his wife to fall for the oldest trick in the world. But her snit fit was filling up half his workday. He better get his ass in gear and get some work done. He did. But only for about 45 minutes. He was barely able to answer some emails before she went off again: “On confession raat at the Thai restaurant, someone told me: ‘Ab aap mujhe chhod kar kabhi nahin jayengi! No one will ever come between us again.” 

Pictures of his ring on her finger came too. 

“I don’t want to take the ring off,” she whined in a new text. “But I love the Qubool Hai inscription you got made for me.”

Exactly my point, babe. Today Mrs. Khan was on a blackmail rampage. She was going through all the stages of anger, manipulation and now coaxing. Good, he had her exactly where he wanted. Asad was beginning to look forward to the evening. Even though it might take him away from Zaid for a few hours longer. 

 

These days Asad had been returning home sooner than usual. The family was thrilled to hear that Zaid had been spotted standing by his parents. Everyone gathered to watch the live show waiting for the kid to stand up. But looks like Zaid didn’t get the memo; he had apparently forgotten that he could stand.  

“Come baby, stand,” his Dadi encouraged first. He looked at her and gave her a toothy grin as if to say, hi, I’m good. What’s up with you?

He went back to playing with his dump truck after a hearty breakfast of mashed bananas and his dad’s cereal on Monday. He even stole a bite of Dadi’s paratha and Ammi’s pizza on Wednesday. 

But he didn’t stand.

The family gathered to watch Zaid on the first three days. Camera phones were ready in America too. 

“Khada hoja, mera raja,” Zeenat called out from New York. 

“Mera cheetah, shabash! He’ll stand any second now,” Anwar boasted. 

“Zaidu, up, up munna,” Razia whispered in his ear.

But Zaid didn’t stand.  

By the fourth day Omar and Ayaan were starting to tease Zoya and Asad for imagining things. 

“Mona darling, you should get your eyes checked,” Ayaan sniggered on day five. “Tomorrow you’ll tell us you saw him fly.” 

“Yeah, pretty soon Americans will start seeing a UFO,” Omar guffawed. “And we’ll have to tell them, don’t panic, it’s only our Zaid come to say hi!” Najma swatted him and Omar coughed. 

“Guys, stoppp!” Zoya complained. “I swear, he’s stood up every night in his crib since we’ve returned!”

“Hmm, you guys must be up to some magic tricks at that special time then,” Omar said much to Asad’s embarrassment. 

“Omar!!!” Everyone rushed to shush him. Thank god the parents were out of earshot. 

Zaid continued to enjoy himself at these Zaid show parties. He was still the center of everyone’s universe. Who knows why they kept looking at him like that with their eyes shining? Indedly folliss. And what did they keep saying to him? Lla mya, who is Stan? Dint they know that his name was Zaaf, not Stan? Why didn’t they clap for him when he crawled really long distances? 

He picked and pulled at the kneecap that Chhoti nani had knitted for him. 

“He moves so fast and goes so far. Dard hota hoga. These will keep his knees from hurting,” Razia had explained the first time she showed up with these inventions. Zoya and Humaira had snickered. 

“He looks like such a dork,” Zoya said. 

“Shh Aapi, that’s so mean. He’s a total sweetheart!” Humaira scolded. 

It had taken many pairs of hands to get the kneecaps on to the squirming bundle of limbs.  

When on the sixth day too Zaid still didn’t stand Rashid declared that it was all for the best. “His legs need more strength. When kids stand up too soon they get leg pain later in life.” 

“Yes,” Shireen was quick to add. “Remember Rahil’s son stood up when he was just eight months, right Ammi? Now he’s knock-kneed. Or is it bow-legged?” She waved her arms in an arc to show how sad Rahil’s son’s legs looked.

“No, he’s pigeon-toed,” Badi Dadi corrected. “Tauba, tauba, Rashid is right. It’s too soon. Stop encouraging him to stand.” 

Razia nodded. From tomorrow she would double the massage time for Zaid’s knees. 

So there, it was decided. This was the current theory embraced by the parents to excuse their grandson’s belated efforts at standing. Asad and Zoya’s claims and sightings were brushed aside. Let him crawl more, was the edict.  

Because somehow Zaid only stood in his crib, and only put on his special show for his parents. But by the time Zoya got her phone camera working she could only capture him falling down on his butt. Hence, no photographic evidence of his standing. The one time she did get her camera to work on time Dobby had leapt in front of Zaid. There went that.

No record of a standing Zaid. 

Had his parents really just imagined it?

  

She didn’t want to be late. But she didn’t want to arrive too early either. Zoya had decided on one of their Jhansi ki Rani Special Edition dolls as a fitting gift for this mystery guest. This one was in full armor with a sword and shield—removable replicas of the historical relics. A resplendent Laxmi Bai rode her steed, and was armed with her child on her back – the tiniest of hat tips to Zaid (Zoya loved the poetic justice of that!) If she liked the woman, the gift would be a genuine present, a tribute to powerful women in fact. If she didn’t, then that woman would forever have a reminder of who she’d be dealing with: A real, 21st century Jhansi ki Rani who was not to be messed with—one who’d be armed and dangerous if any one made eyes at her Jahanpanah.



Asad braced for the impact. Ahh … He should’ve known. She’d come ready to slay … and take no prisoners.

She must know that he wouldn’t be able to look away.

Her revenge was golden. 

Zoya swanned in. He needn’t have looked up. He knew she had entered the restaurant when eyes turned to the entrance. The driver followed in her glorious wake with a gaily-wrapped present which he carefully placed by Asad’s elbow. He bowed and left.

“Umm, Hi!” Zoya said.

Asad cleared his throat, mentally thanking her for the reminder. She must’ve known he’d get tongue-tied at the vision. Vixen! 

“Uhh … Ms. Dutt, meet my wife, Zoya,” Asad croaked out barely able to take his eyes off said wife.  

Finally Zoya got to meet this “her” face to face and she giggled. A woman in her 50s, with glasses and a dusting of grey at her temples, rose to fold her in a bear hug.  

“Oh I’m so pleased to meet the famous Mrs. Asad Ahmed Khan!” 

Pulling back she cupped Zoya’s face in her hands. “You’re more beautiful than I imagined. Asad won’t stop talking about you! Remind me to get a picture of you two before I leave. I’ve become so forgetful, yaar!” 

Zoya loved this Ms. Dutt. First, because obviously she wasn’t here to put doras on her Jahanpanah. But second because she seemed so real. And fun! And even better was Jahanpanah’s expression. Got you good, Mr. Khan!

Asad reeled from the onslaught. He couldn’t pay attention to the conversation as hard as he tried. It was a good thing that Zoya was doing most of the talking. She was already on a first name basis with their guest.

“Call me Sonika, I hate this Ma’am business.” 

“Yeah, aren’t Indians too over-formal?” Zoya chimed in. In America they called their professors and peers and seniors by first names.

“We are. You’re right. I prefer it casual too. Or may be I’m more informal with people I really click with.”

And finally Zoya got her chance to ask all her questions. It was a good thing that Sonika was equally chatty.  

How did Asad know her?  

He interned in her office a long time ago.  

Where had she been all these years? 

Moved to Chandigarh when her husband passed away. 

So, was she moving back to Bhopal?

“I don’t know. May be. Still undecided. I happened to be here and thought I’d look up Asad to see what he was up to. I’m so proud of all he’s done! He was telling me about the Lakeview project.” 

Asad’s mind was drifting. She had worn that suit deliberately. He just knew it. She was wearing a gift from him yet again, that full-sleeved white kurta with straight sharara pants and a magenta dupatta. Of course it was her subtle reminder of their honeymoon on the Palace on Wheels! Those heady days … And nights. While slow-dancing in each other’s arms he had bent to whisper in her ear, “am I imagining it, or are you commando under there?” 

She had fused her hips to his and rotated them reveling in his immediate response. Arms around his neck, she had c*ocked her head to the side to tease him, “that Mr. Khan, is for me to know and you to find out.”  

Jeez, if she was commando under there right now he would surely combust into a fine powder of horny frustration! She couldn’t be, could she? 

Zoya looked at him then and smiled a secret smile.

He raised an eyebrow; she blushed. 

Oh god Zoya, don't do this to me! 

That night he’d lifted her in a fireman’s throw over his shoulder and carried her to their room when she’d become too sassy for her own good. He’d let her down and pinned her against their cabin door. “Oh god, Zoya, I can’t get enough of you. I want to eat you up.” 

Yes. He wanted to eat her up right now too. Asad gripped the fork in his hand with undue force.

“Are you OK, Mr. Khan?” she had the gall to ask with twinkling eyes. 

“Umm … yes.”

He didn’t know what he was eating. Or drinking. His eyes glazed over. 

“Undress for me!” He’d ordered her to perform a strip-tease for him that night. She’d obeyed and burned him up raw. Asad shifted in his seat to peek at her feet. Of course. She was wearing the same heels that she’d stripped in.

“Breathe, Mr. Khan,” she’d said softly that night.

She should have said it tonight too.

He’d taken her roughly that night. From behind. Still fully clothed. And she’d mewled—her scream outdone only by the train’s shrill whistle.

Asad squeezed his eyes shut. This was a bad idea. He shouldn’t have challenged the woman. Now he was paying dearly. He just hoped he wouldn’t make a giant fool of himself in front of Ms. Dutt. 

“Mr. Khan what do you think?” Zoya asked him.

“… What? Sorry I didn’t catch the question.” 

“Sonika was talking about her son, Amit. Poor thing she’s worried that his grandparents are spoiling him rotten.”

“I’m sure he’s a great kid,” Asad added vaguely. “There’s no need to worry.”

“No,” Sonika made a face. “That’s why I’m here. I’m hoping he can stay with my aunt. I don’t know what to do with him. He’s been moody, acting up ...”

“So I said why doesn’t he intern at your office!” Zoya beamed at Asad.

“Hunh?”

“Wouldn’t that be great?”

“Really? Asad do you think that’s possible?” Hope flashed on Sonika’s face.

“Errm … I …”

“I’m sure Mr. Khan will be a great influence on Amit. He’ll be a strong role model. We can surely try it out for a month, can’t we?” Zoya’s puppy-dog pout was getting plumper. And Asad nearly fell off his chair imagining biting into it.

“ … Sure … why not. It’s no problem.” 

The only problem now was to wrap up this dinner and get home. Home, where he could punish his wife appropriately for not just torturing him but also getting him to perform babysitting duties. Incredibly foolish. 

“If that’s so then I accept on his behalf. But please, it’ll be an unpaid internship. I insist. I don’t want you to go out of your way for me. As is it I’m worried he’ll be a major pain in the ass.”

Zoya gasped at her candidness and Sonika laughed. “I love him, but seriously sometimes kids can drive you nuts. Do you have any?”

Did she have to ask, Asad groaned inwardly. Because it gave his wife the perfect excuse to pull out her phone and show all twenty thousand photos of Zaid. 

They’d be here forever. 

He watched their heads bent over the phone screen and rolled his eyes. 

“Zoya, I think Ms. Dutt gets the idea. Why don’t we order dessert?” He stared at her hoping she’d get the message. His chin jerked just a fraction. 

“Aww, and Zaid must be waiting for his mom and dad too,” Sonika added. Thank god she understood, Asad sighed, even if his wife didn’t.

Sonika decided to skip dessert—she was cutting down on sweets. Asad breathed a sigh of relief. But not Mrs. Khan. Zoya wanted kulfi and falooda. And Asad was this close to flaming out into falooda himself. 

How he sat through her slurping and licking and moaning he didn’t know. But finally she finished; he’d already signaled for the check. He’d leave the guy a hefty tip for being so swift. Or was the dumbsh*it just ogling his wife? 

The goodbyes lasted forever as Asad gritted his teeth. And of course Zoya’s great memory had to prove itself yet again.  

“Oohh remember, Sonika wanted to take a picture of us!”

Damned woman. Mischief maker and executioner par excellence!

And it wasn’t just one picture. Sonika wanted a whole bunch. Zoya made them pose this way and that. Could she not hear the rumbly growl coming from her husband? 

Asad gripped Zoya’s arm tight trying to signal his desperation.  

“Ouch!” she squeaked and he nearly died of embarrassment. This woman would get him killed for sure. 

 

It was raining. They dashed to get into the car. 

“You are so evil—” 

Asad grabbed the back of her neck and silenced her with a harsh kiss after they buckled in. The kiss deepened then softened. He ran his tongue over her parted lips and sucked on her upper lip. 

“Asad …” 

But he’d promised himself a bite of that pout so he helped himself to a nip and taste. “You were saying?” Asad asked as he tucked her hair behind her ear once they came up for air.

“I love you.” 

He kissed her again. 

“I love you, Mr. Khan even if you pulled such a dirty, rotten trick on me.”

“I did?” His hands were already busy inspecting under her kurta. Thank god she had a bra on. But when he undid the side zipper of her pants he encountered bare flesh. Asad groaned out loud. 

“You are wicked, Mrs. Khan to drive a man to such insanity.”

“Serves you right for trying to pull a fast one on me!” 

“I’ll serve you right,” he drawled as his hand peeled her waistband away to part her thighs.

“Asa—”

She squawked as she felt his finger spread and spear her. She’d been wet all evening hoping for exactly this. Zoya’s head rolled back against the headrest. She climaxed hard and fast as he knew she would. She’d been ready for him all evening. He’d seen it in her dilating eyes.

“You’ll be the end of me,” she heard him whisper when her eyes refocused.  

Zoya took his hand in hers and sucked his fingers. His head fell back. 

“I could return the favor,” she offered.

“No. At home.”

They watched the rain patter on the windshield for a long time letting the silence cocoon them. Finally Asad started the car and reversed out of the parking space to head home.

“It’s early yet. Ammi and Zaid will be up. And what if everyone else is there to to watch Zaid stand?”

Asad hung a U-turn.  

“The office, then.”


“Why did you do it? Why did you make me so miserable all day long?” Zoya asked much later when they were returning home.

“You were miserable? Jealous, Mrs. Khan?”

“You know damn right I was jealous! Weren’t those texts proof enough?”

“They were indeed. Good,” Asad said, smug as a full-bellied bug.

“Why?” Zoya snapped her head around to face him. 

“Because whenever you’re jealous next, I want you to be sassy, angry and spitting fire like you were today. I don’t want you mousy and sad like that time with Nilima.” 

“Mousy! Me? Allah miyan, what’s wrong with you, Mr. Khan! All this heart-burn and drama for this?”

“Yes. Because I love it when you’re a jealous Jhansi ki Rani! I love to see you on a rampage tearing into me and trying to remind me of all the things we have together.”

“You’re so mental!” 

“And whose fault is that?” 

Zoya sighed happily and leaned back against the seat. What a day! She giggled suddenly.  

“What?”

“Do you remember once when I was pregnant I got mad at you …?”

“Which time? There were so many.”

She gave his shoulder a light punch. She felt so drugged. Mellow and high at the same time.

“You were teasing me … about matching up Feroze and Nikhat. And then when I wouldn’t talk to you …” 

“I asked: ‘Who is your biggest fan?’ ” 

“Yes, you do remember!” 

“And what did you say?”

“That ‘you are my biggest fan!’ ” 

“See my point?”

She flashed her eyes at him and sassed, “no!” 

“Who writes her name on my heart every night?”

“I do.”

“Who do I kiss goodnight?”

“Me.” 

“Who’s the mother of my son?”

 “I am.”

“Who gets your pizza order just right?”

She had frowned then too. 

“OK, on most days?” he teased.

“You do. But do you remember our deal that day, Mr. Khan?”

Asad groaned.

“Who’s the one woman in the world I’d do a strip tease for?” he’d asked her then.

 “Me.”

“Which dimple did I fall for?”

“This one.” 

“So, Mr. Khan, strip tease pakka tonight, hai na?” 

“In front of Zaid?” 

“Hmmm … you know Ammi’s been saying that may be Zaid can sleep with her once a week. Should we start today?” 

“Zoya—”

“Please, Asad! It’s been ages. And after what you’ve put me through today, you owe me!” 

To seal the deal she recited one of her former shers, slightly amended of course to suit the occasion:

          Meter se lamba kilometer, kilometer se lamba meel,

          Meter se lamba kilometer, kilometer se lamba meel,

          Please don’t break it Asad, you agreed on a deal.

He knew he was trapped. But Asad was more surprised that he was looking forward to this deal and his punishment.

Mrs. Khan really had ruined him.





Song in Title:

Lamhe (1991): "Meri Bindiya"







Apr 1

Meri Subah Ho Tumhi Aur Tumhi Shaam Ho (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 9 times)

Chapter 133

 

 

Zoya shot up in bed in the dead of night. Her heart pounded and breath sawed. The moonlight streaming in through the picture window did nothing to cool her indignation. She turned to look at Asad and glowered at his sleeping form tangled in the sheet. Even the sight of the feather boa draped around his neck or the multiple lipstick stains over his face, chest, and lower … failed to impress or appease her. She glared at the hundred rupee note still tucked behind his ear.

A dangerous huff and a puff was building inside her … 

Asad slept on unware of the coming tumult.

When he still slept on without alerting to her distress like any good husband would, Zoya boxed him hard across the chest—those few practices at his punching bag had given her a good hook. 

“Uunmmph!” Asad yelped. “What? Who—?” He massaged his chest wondering if the sky had fallen. Was it an earthquake? Oh my god, Zo—

Even before he could turn to check on her, Zoya pressed her angry face against his. His eyes widened.

“What the hell did you mean by, ‘the next time I get jealous’?” Her fingers drew ominous air quotes. Asad blinked to clear the haze from his eyes. She ranted on: “What are you planning Mr. Khan? Who am I going to be jealous of next time?” Her finger jabbed him in his recently-punched chest.

“Zoya—” He tried to hold her back but between the stabbing and the air quoting it was hard to get her to be still.

“Don’t you dare Zoya me! ‘Next time?’ Really? I want answers and I want them now!”

Ya Allah, this girl! The next time he decided to pull a trick on her he’d better think twice. He gave himself a mental slap for even thinking about a next time. She would seriously maim him. Good lord, keeping up with her mad mood swings and emotional gymnastics was getting to be exhausting.

And her nocturnal hissy fits were always a doozy. He knew that from the last time she was …

Wait.

Nocturnal hissy fi—?

Panic slammed his already-bruised chest.

Asad spluttered and gripped her hard by her forearms. “Zoya, are you pregnant?”

“What?” Where did that even come from? She shook his hands off and stuck him with a finger again. “Stop changing the subject Mr. Khan, and give me some straight answers. Who am I going to be jealous of next?”

He shook her. “Zoya, focus! What if you’re pregnant?”

“What nonsense!” she flipped her hair off her shoulder and then gulped. His words had just registered. “Oh my god! Could I be?” Her eyes glittered for a second. “Nah!” she decided with a careless wave of her hand.

“How do you feel? Any changes in appetite or …” Dang, after reading up so much about the subject when she was pregnant with Zaid, Asad suddenly couldn’t remember a single thing about early pregnany signs.

“Umm … do you feel queasy in the mornings? Tired?”

“What? Why would you even say that?”

“Because this is how you’d always wake me up in the middle of the night when you were pregnant with Zaid!” Her hormonal outbursts during those months meant that he had to add a third cup of coffee the next morning to function normally.

“No! Oh god, this can’t be happening! Mr. Khan, this is all your fault—” The finger started to wave in his face again.

“What did I do?” He shut up when he saw the look on her face. “I mean, OK fine … we can fight about that later. For now, we need to confirm if you really are.”

“How? It’s too late to go get a pregnancy test kit.”

“You don’t have any left over from the last time we suspected?” Over two months ago they’d had a similar scare.

“No,” she wailed. “We used up all of them to make sure!” He’d bought several different brands just in case …

“Jeez, at this rate we’ll need to keep a steady supply of standbys …” Asad muttered.

“Oh really Mr. Khan, you plan on us going through this anxety again? Your plan is to keep me eternally pregnant AND jealous!”

There she went again trying to pin this on him. She was doing the double-slapping thing against his chest now. Asad took her hands in his and gripped them tight. “Babe, focus this once! You’re the one who must’ve calculated the safe dates wrong. We’ve been extra careful since the last time we went through this.”

“That, Mr. Khan, is impossible,” Zoya said with faux-sweetness. “There’s no way I could be wrong. I have an app to keep track of my periods. It’s foolproof!”

Fool woman. Believed more in technology than her own husband.

The discussion would’ve continued and he would’ve been gouged even more, but just then they heard a sharp cry followed by the sound of Zaid bawling.

Uh-oh.

Looks like the Dadi-Zaid sleepover had hit the skids. Zoya leapt out of bed and would’ve run out of the room stark naked if Asad hadn’t hooked her wrist.

He threw the robe at her. Zoya slapped her head before slipping into it. Thank god for husbands! Cinching it tightly at her waist she ran out to see why her son was crying and mother-in-law sobbing. Asad was quick to don his kurta and pajama too.  

Lights blazed in the living room.

“Ammi! What happened?” Zoya asked as her mother-in-law desceneded the stairs with a squalling baby. It was hard to get Dilshad to calm down too. Zaid leapt to be in his Ammi’s arms. Zoya rocked him and made soft kissing sounds. Eyes squinched tight, big tears splashed onto his reddened cheeks.

“It’s OK baby, mama’s here,” Zoya tried to hush him even as she checked for blood or cuts. “What happened to my chhota baby?” she asked as she nuzzled him.

“I think he was trying to stand and hit the headboard,” Dilshad wailed louder than her grandson. “Mera bachcha, I’m so sorry. Dadi is so bad!” She took Zaid’s little hand in hers. “Here, hit your careless Dadi. Khoob maro! Bad Dadi!”

Asad had come out by now and heard the details. He put his arm around his mother to soothe her as Zoya took Zaid away to feed and settle him down for the night. Thankfully there was no real damage done. And if all went well the munchkin would be too sleepy to remember the accident in the morning.

“Ammi, it’s OK,” Asad soothed Dilshad. “It’s nothing—he’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure?” Dilshad hiccupped. “He’ll be fine?” She tried to wipe her tears but more fell in sympathy for her grandson’s. Those big wrenching sobs broke her heart. What a terrible Dadi she’d been. That too on the first night Zaid had come to sleep with her!

Asad patted her back and sat her down on the sofa before bringing her a glass of water. “Ammi, I’m sure he’s fine. This isn’t the first time he’s bumped his head and it probably won’t be the last. It’s not your fault.”

“Really?” Finally she was regaining some of her composure. Dilshad turned to look up at her son and snorted. And then she began to hiccup, or laugh. He couldn’t tell.

“What happened?” Asad frowned. “Ammi, aap theek toh hain?” Was Ammi getting hysterical? No, that couldn’t be it. Ammi wasn’t the one to break down so easily. May be she really was feeling better now. But he was surprised at the speed at which she’d recovered and forgiven herself. He must have some awesome powers of persuasion. If they only worked as well on his headstrong wife.

“Nothing,” Dilshad smirked. But soon her face grew serious as she re-swiped her cheeks. “I got so worried when I heard him cry. What if I hadn’t woken up and he fell off the bed?” Her face crumpled again. “Asad, I’m so sorry!”

“Ammi, please that’s impossible! And there’s nothing to be sorry for. You’re acting as if you didn’t raise me, or Najma. We survived didn’t we? Zaid will be fine.”

“But—”

“No buts. You’re worrying about this too much. Here, have some water and now go get a good night’s rest.”

Dilshad allowed herself to be reassured and herded upstairs. Shukar hai khuda ka, that Zaid wasn’t too badly hurt. And thank god for her son and daughter-in-law who were so forgiving! She’d heard from her friend, Sarita, about how her son and bahu didn’t allow the grandkids to stay with the grandparents because they worried about the kids’ safety. Which reminded her of Zaid again—the poor baby. What if he’d gotten severely hurt? She would never forgive herself. May be she shouldn’t have insisted on him sleeping with her … Tomorrow she would go to the dargah and get a tawiz from the Pir Baba outside ...

 

When Asad closed the bedroom door behind him Zoya was just placing a dozing Zaid back into his crib.

“He OK?” Asad asked.

“Umm-hmm. Just a little bump. He won’t even remember it in the morning.”

Zoya turned to reassure her husband and gasped. “Allah Miyan what’s wrong with you, Mr. Khan! Is that how you went out in front of Ammi?”

“What?” Asad’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead.

She took his hand and marched him to the mirror in the closet.

It was Asad’s turn to smack his forehead this time. No wonder Ammi had burst out laughing. And no, she hadn’t been hysterical either. Not only was he wearing his kurta inside out but he’d forgotten to remove the lipstick stains from his jaw and neck. Allah miyan, those hickeys … and wait, was that a pink feather sticking out from his hair?

“Damn,” he muttered, eyes squeezed, forehead pressed to the cool glass. Damn. Damn. Damn.

Zoya began giggling. She removed something from the collar of his kurta, opened his clenched palm—and placed the folded 100-rupee note in it. Asad groaned. By now he was beating his head against the mirror rhythmically.

“Oh my god, what must Ammi have thought? Mr. Khan, you are so embarrassing!”

“I’m embarrassing? This is all your fault. Look what you’ve done to me! I’ve become a bloody joker in front of my own mother!”

“Jeez, good job letting Ammi know we were doing the nasty after packing off Zaid to be with her! Mr. Khan, you’re so useless!” Zoya doubled over with laughter.

“I’m useless? I’m useless! Whose handiwork is this?” He pointed at the lipstick marks and the hickeys.

“Umm please, that’s not my handiwork at all. More like my lipwork!” She squealed in delight. She even did a little dance step to exult over her brilliant wit—after blowing him an air kiss.

“Whatever,” Asad grumbled. He covered his face once again remembering Ammi’s expression. So. Damn. Embarrassing. The money rustled against his cheek. In a fit he threw it to the floor. How would he ever face her again?

“Not whatever. Whenever! Jahanpanah ki service mein kaneez hamesha hazir hai!” Zoya bowed elaborately waving a saucy palm in front of her face.

“Jahanpanah’s kaneez needs a good spanking for always getting him into trouble,” he groused some more.

“Promise?”

“Hunh?”

She turned and stuck her bum out giving it a good wiggle. The silk rustled against her skin. “Promise, you’ll give me a good spanking? Should I keep the robe on or off?”

Asad gave her butt a playful whack.

“OUCH!”

“Shhh!”

“Oh really? Kaneez silence mein Jahanpanah ke zulm sahey?”

“You are so bad!” he chased her to the bed. “And there’s more of where that came from, Mrs. Khan!”

Oh, what the hell. Ammi had already seen him at his most incredibly foolish. Might as well put it to some good use to punish his wife.


He tugged at the belt at her waist and snaked it out of the silken loops the next second. And before she could gasp he had her hands tied behind her back with it.

“Ooh Mr. Khan, looks like you have some wicked plans for your kaneez! Deewar main chunvayenge kya, isse?”

He placed a finger on her lips to shut her up. “Worse,” he drawled. Her eyes widened at the threat. The robe spilled away from her shoulders and tangled with her tied hands behind her.

“Jeez, great job not taking off the robe first,” she said softly going for a playful tone but alerting to the intensity in his eyes. Her mouth went dry. She licked her lips.

Asad outlined her wet lips with his thumb. “I do have a master plan for you, kaneez.” He kissed her hard before bunching the robe in his hand to draw its hem over her head and eyes. Zoya’s mouth rounded in shock. She felt him tie the two ends behind her head. Zoya heard the lamp click off. Darkness blanketed her; she quivered in anticipation.

She felt his hand squeeze her throat. “Jahanpanah is very angry with you for being too saucy for your own good,” his voice rumbled near her ear. “And for getting him into trouble.”

Ooh, she loved it when he role-played. He refused to do it often but when he did, her husband outdid himself. Zoya wiggled in pleasure even as her heart thundered in her ears. Should she be sassy or submissive tonight? She felt his fingers dig into her scalp as he yanked her head back and bit the shell of her ear. She grinned through the gasp of pain. OK, Jahanpanah was giving her clues about what he wanted from her but when did she ever listen to him! She would be submissive but only after she’d had her fun with him first.

Zoya wrenched out of his arms. But he seemed to anticipate her disobedience; he roped her right back in slamming her against his chest. Roughly. She struggled against his embrace, against her restraints and felt herself being lifted up. She expected to be dumped on the bed. But no, Jahanpanah had other plans for his errant kaneez. He sat down and laid her face-down across his knees.

Zoya felt disoriented. She couldn’t tell if they were on the bed or the settee. A jolt of awareness scorched through her making her wet. She writhed some more unconsciously grinding her bre@sts into his thighs but stilled when she felt his finger trail down from her skull to her nape over the gathered silk … and then langorously over her spine all the way to her lower back. His finger feathered over her butt crack. Zoya shivered. She spread her legs inviting a more intimate touch. But he stopped just short of doing her bidding. His fingers drew lazy circles on her ass cheek before kneading it. And as she wriggled and mewled in inflamed ardor, her husband spanked her.

“Asad,” she moaned in surprise.

He grabbed her hair to pull her head back. “You’re a simple kaneez. You don’t get to call me by my first name.”

Oh really, Jahanpanah! She bit his thigh through the thin cotton of his pajamas.

Asad snickered as his grip on her hair tightened. The woman was irrepressible and he loved her the more for it. He lifted her up on her knees by her hair to face him and she fell upon him—growling, gnashing her teeth and spitting fire. She was a glorious sight to behold. A writhing, naked Jhansi ki Rani with her head and eyes masked in a silken turban. The restraints on her hands made her mouth the only weapon she could attack him with. And she did after initially bumping her head into his nose. He grunted as she knew he would. He saw her teeth flash. Homing in like a warrior, Zoya pressed her mouth to his, sinking her teeth into his lower lip. As he groaned she drew his lip into her mouth to suck on it. She tasted blood and triumph.

Asad fell back on the settee taking her down with him. His arms came around her to steady her before he rolled them on her back to drag a ripe nipple into his mouth. She was panting. That harsh tug made her wetter still. And wilder. Her arms were still trapped behind her and her eyes still blindfolded. Zoya swung her legs wide to scissor him between her thighs. She ground her hips against his. Her body wanted release, it craved his touch and thrusts. But she encountered hurdles. 

“Why are you still dressed,” she panted in frustration.

“Because you are still disobeying me and being badtameez as usual,” Asad retorted as he stood back.

Zoya shivered from the sudden chill at their separation. She sat up. “Asad, I need you.”

“Need me to do what?”

“To rub me, love me. Make me come.”

“Shh.” His finger came up to shush her again.

Zoya’s tongue darted out to lick it and draw his finger into her mouth. “Please,” she begged. “I’ll suck you down. Like this. I’ll make it so good.”

Asad snorted. Of course, she’d make it good. Did he not know that aready? He peeled the kurta off, nearly ripping the seams. She heard the rustle and sat up straighter to root at him.

Fingers at her chin he guided her mouth to the drawstring at his waist with his thumb. “Undress me,” he ordered.

“But my hands!”

“You don’t need your hands for this.”

It was hard to do without sight or her hands. With her eager tongue she tried to find the string's end. Watching her tongue dance around and nick the goosed flesh at his waist made Asad groan out loud. That groan made her feel powerful. She temporarily forgot her mission. Bolder, she trailed her tongue over his skin above the waistband. She knew exactly where his scar was; circling the bump with her tongue she sucked on it. She heard him inhale sharply and remembered to use her teeth to tug at one end of the drawstring. It caught. Asad felt too impatient. He offered her seeking mouth one of the ends of the string and winced in pain as she bit down on his fingers.

“You are so wicked,” he murmured. He held her hair again with one hand as he stepped out of the pajamas and kicked them away. Her skull throbbed with the painful tugs so far. But she could only think of one sensation right now. She heard a soft thud on the floor and the next instant she knew what that was.

“On your knees now,” he commanded and she complied quickly sinking down on the cushion he’d dropped to the floor.

Still functioning on pure instinct she turned towards the heat and scent of his body. Zoya nibbled the skin at the base of his thigh fully aware of the erection bobbing against her cheek and chin. Then she slowly worked her way up from the root to his tip. Her tongue lingered over each veiny bump under the velvet skin. She drew the beaded moisture at the bulbous head into her mouth.

“Zoya!” he bucked hard when she took him in deep in her mouth to graze her throat. His hand came to cradle the back of her head—to guide and control, slow her down, speed her up. She hollowed her cheeks to suck him off; with a growl he threw his head back and reared.

He couldn’t take too much of her hot mouth on him. He would explode. Pulling out Asad lifted her off the ground and carried her to the console table by the window. It was only then that Zoya realized they’d been on the settee and not the bed. Spinning her around her bent her at the waist and pressed her face against the table. The cool wood against her bre@asts made her shiver. He kicked her feet apart to widen her stance.

Zoya waited for him to take her. She squirmed restlessly. Why was he taking so long? She felt his breath puff between her thighs and nearly came apart as she felt his tongue lick her with firm strokes. Arms helpless behind her, cheek and torso plastered to the console table she could only pitch her hips greedily to steal her pleasure. Her breath grew harsher. She squeezed her thighs even as he spread her legs wider.

And just when she thought she was close to exploding he withdrew.

Zoya hissed in fury. “Mr. Khan, you are killing me on purpose.”

“That’s exactly the point, Mrs. Khan.” He pressed a hand to her upper back and nudged her with his tip; Zoya moaned.

“I want you moving inside me. Right. Now. I want it hard. I want it deep.” She bounced on her toes in frustration. Her hips writhed in need.

“Babe,” he sighed in surrender. “Jo hukum.” And he thrust into her waiting softness, hard, lifting her clean off her toes. Feeling that he still wasn’t deep enough he grabbed her thighs to straighten them and bury himself deeper. Fingers digging into her flesh he hammered and plowed his way through till they both came calling out each other’s names.

 

Asad nearly yelped out loud when he saw Zoya’s text the next afternoon at the office. By now he always made sure to never open her texts in company—god knows what her texts would say and only god knows what his reactions to her daily insanities would be.

Today was no different.

“My bre@sts feel so sore. Do yo think I could really be preg …” Multiple question marks followed. Then emojis with confused faces. Red and green faces. Cringing faces. Good god, trying to decode those emojis was giving him a mini stroke.

Yes, the soreness was one of the surer signs—he remembered it clearly now from the time she was pregnant with Zaid. She wouldn’t let him near her bre@sts in those early days. The night when she’d been so sure she was pregnant, they’d made love. And Zoya had trapped his hands. Sucked and bitten his fingers as she rode him. But she wouldn’t let him touch her. Or lick her. Or suckle. It had been frustrating and se*xy as hell.

“But the tests were negative,” he texted back in mild exasperation. This morning he’d dashed to the nearest pharmacy to stock up on a few pregnancy kits. Why were they still having this discussion?  The woman would surely kill him one of these days with the weekly heart attacks.

Or the nightly capers.

Asad blushed. He still didn’t know what had come over him last night. He’d been a beast trying to tame its mate. But the way their bodies combusted together and reacted to each other, reversing sub and dom roles, reveling in pain and pleasure, tenderness and torture … meeting and mating as the equals they were … it made him hard just thinking about it even now. Things were never straightforward or by the book with his wife. She was hardwired to defy rules. It drove him insane; it made his blood sing.

“They were kinda negative, but what if they’re wrong?” Her text brought him back to the current discussion. “Pick up another kit when you come home,” she ordered. His wife was hardly one to be subordinate for too long.

Asad sighed. At this rate he’d need frequent flyer status at the chemist’s. Or one of those punch cards—buy 10 pregnancy test kits and get the 11th free.

“Fine. Or you could just go to the doctor,” Asad offered. But he knew why Zoya was dithering on that step. So was he. Because going to the doctor would confirm it. Set it in stone.

A second baby. Could it really happen? Were they ready for it? He remembered Zoya’s words from a few months ago. She didn’t want another baby for another couple of years. “I want to enjoy Zaid,” she’d said. “Focus all our attention on him.” Would Zaid get jealous of the new baby?

He’s just a baby! Babies don’t get jealous.

But then he remembered something. They used to laugh at how during the saas-bahu yoga sessions Zaid would not just mimic his Dadi and Ammi but also try to displace Dobby from Zoya’s stomach during the shav aasan pose. Both of them fought for the same seat in the house. Just this morning in fact, there had been a minor tussle and then Dobby had put his nose in the air and marched off to sulk at all the Bhaijaan-bullying. Zaid had climbed up on his Ammi and lay down on her chest babbling sounds of triumph.

This morning.

Asad covered his face in embarrassment. Good god, this morning had been rough. First, he kept avoiding Ammi’s glance. He hid behind the newspaper most of breakfast. The hickeys were tucked out of sight under the collar and tie and the lipstick stains had been scrubbed off, but still. He was still mortified by what Ammi had seen last night. And then there was his swollen lip where his feisty wife had bitten him later last night. He should probably leave town for a while so he wouldn’t have to face Ammi and have her burst out laughing at her se*x-addled son. To top all that humiliation, he’d spied the bruises on Zoya’s wrists and blushed as scarlet as her shirt. He’d been careful not to tie her hands too tight last night. But the squirmy and impatient little diva that she was, her constant resistance had resulted in some bruising. Asad had been extra tender with her later, massaging her back and arms, spooning her against him, dropping gentle kisses and caresses till she fell asleep. But the guilt stayed put.

He glanced down at the phone in his hands. Zoya’s words “pick up another kit,” preoccupied him. Asad was in a fog of conflicted longing most of the day.

A second baby. What if it was a little girl this time? Amna. His heart surged. Tiny, delicate little hands and feet. He’d paint her mini nails now that he was such an expert. Tie up her hair in a neat pony tail. He wouldn’t let any one talk him into getting her ears piereced—she could do it whenever she wanted. No pressure  … As more experienced parents they would certainly be better at changing diapers this time round. But Zaid. What about Zaid? Would it be fair to him?

Asad bumped into Ayaan in the afternoon. He stared at his younger brother for the longest time. Did he resent Ayaan or Najma as an older brother? Certainly not. Zoya loved Humaira just as much. Did these sibling-loving genes pass down to Zaid? But Zaid was just a baby himself! To expect him to be noble and welcoming to a brand new sibling was terribly unfair to him.

Back at his desk his eyes were dragged to the slideshow on his digital frame. Every other picture had Zaid in it. Zaid as a new born in the hospital—closed eyes, tiny fists curled. That little rooting, rosebud mouth …

Pictures of a one day-old Zaid snoozing at his daddy’s birthday celebration.

The khajur-tasting.

Growing older, weeks by months.

Eid celebration—tiny kurta-pajama set and topee that Ammi had bought him. Zoya’s birthday portraits with the whole family. Pictures of Ayaan and Zaid. Zaid with Abbu, Siddiqui Saheb and Aunty. Zaid in New York waving to the Statue of Liberty … With Aapi and Jeeju. With his Phuphis. A picture of him with his guitar and toy truck. Another one capturing him mid-sneeze.

Asad couldn’t focus. The last meeting had been a blur. Thank god Ayaan had taken the lead. By 4 that afternoon he’d had it.

“Be ready. I’m coming to pick you up,” he texted Zoya.

“Why,” came her usual sass.

“We’re going to Dr. Sharma to confirm once and for all if you’re pregnant or not.” Asad slapped his laptop shut, neatened the already neat table and was about to push his chair back, slip into his coat when—

“Oh. I forgot to tell you. False alarm. Just started my period.”

Asad’s head fell back against the chair with a dull thud. He wished it was concrete he’d slammed his head against. At least that way he would have a legitimate excuse to get his head examined.

He squeezed his forehead. Deep breaths. Take deep breaths, he told himself.

His wife must take a special kind of pleasure in driving him mad. She had a doctorate in tormenting him. A Ph.D. He should start calling her Dr. Zoya from now on.

He remembered her posing as a doctor and ambulance driver once, a long time ago …

It was confirmed. She was the doctor of meddling, infuriating, crackpotted, havoc-wreaking, ball-bustin—

His phone pinged. Did he dare look at it without smashing his phone against the nearest wall? And how many phones had she helped destroy—

This time it was emojis with sunglasses. Five. He counted five of them. Then came the dancing girls. Three of them. “We’re safe! Isn’t that awesome? Especially given how we’ve been going at it like bunnies!!!” Winky faces. “Aren’t you relieved? When’re you coming home? I love you!”

Gaaaahhh!

She was lucky she was cute and that he was madly in love with her.

“But all that soreness …?” he asked in his next message feeling surprisingly mellow for someone whose blood pressure had just spiked to off-the-charts, ambulance-necessitating levels.

“I get it once in a while when I’m PMSing. Don’t you remember?”

Don’t I remember? I’m supposed to remember? Mrs. Khan, you are a total head case. And I’m one too. For letting you get away with murder.

Another ping. Now what?

“Why? Were you hoping I was pregnant?”

Asad looked at the screen for a long time. He had no way of knowing that she was looking expectantly at her phone too a few miles away.

Zoya held her breath as she saw the bubble hover on her screen. He was typing. But what was taking so long for him to finish?

“Let’s just say I was looking forward …” He erased it. What? Looking forward to meeting Amna?

“I’ll miss Amna … and Zaid being bhaijaan for now.” He typed. “But we can wait. Because I won’t miss the morning sickness. Or the soreness in your bre@sts.” But he would miss the rounding belly. Feeling the baby kick.

“In that case Mr. Khan, you may want to stock up on more pregnancy test kits. For the future.”

Asad smiled. Always keeping him on his toes this woman. No rest for the weary. Or for the horny—as she always liked to add.

He leaned back in his chair and spun to look out of the plate glass window. Asad never could explain it but a tenderness overcame him whenever he found out Zoya was on her period. She didn’t have the terribly achy and back-breaking kind of severe periods that many other girls had. “Just once in a while I get sore or will have a back-ache. I’m so lucky!” She’d say breezily. But he would notice Zoya wincing or clutching her back. Asad was extra careful to touch her during those days. Soft cuddles, back rubs was all he allowed himself even though he wanted to suck hard on her oversensitive, dusky nipples that were off-limits at this time.

Well, mostly he tried to be strict about touching.

Because sometimes she was at her horniest during her periods and that got him hard enough to drill to Alaska.

“Are you OK?” he asked calling Zoya.

He needed to hear her voice. Asad needed to hear the million giggles in that voice.

Zoya’s breath caught at his tone. “Um-hmm,” she answered softly. “Why?”

“No backache?”

“Not today.”

“Good,” he said because Asad knew about the second days being worse than the first.

“Craving something?”

On some of these days Zoya craved American fried chicken with a passion. He detested KFC but obliged her. Once they’d even tried to make some at home on a Sunday and it had turned out pretty decent. Even after the fights they had about the ingredients.

“You cannot be serious about using whole wheat bread crumbs for fried chicken, Mr. Khan! That’s just nuts. It’s not even legal.”

Or she craved loads of Nestle cookie dough. She would eat spoonfuls of it—kachcha.

“Zoya stop it, you’ll get salmonella poisoning if you eat it raw!” Did she listen to him though? No.

“Why do all your cravings have to be for junk or fast food? Why not crave fruits or carrots?” he had asked earlier on.

“Allah Miyan, what’s wrong with you, Mr. Khan! I’m not a rabbit or a hamster! I’m a full-blooded woman.”

Didn’t he know it.

Zoya had shrugged another time, “I don’t know why I have these weird cravings. May be I need the extra sodium or something during this time.”

Asad being Asad had tried to research sodium deficiency and the effects of junk food on menstruating women. He’d even rattled off the results to her. And Zoya’d predictably rolled her eyes even as she dug into her tub of dark chocolate ice cream alternated with over-salty potato chips. By now he’d given up. When had he ever been able to change her mind anyways?

“Want me to pick something besides the kits? And please don’t say pizza or diet Coke. You just had some yesterday.” Sometimes the cravings came even without the periods.

“Hmm. You know today I’m craving pasta! Something spicy, cheesy and garlicky.” He heard her smack her lips. “Soft, and gooey, and melty …”

“Umm babe, stop, or I’m not going to be able to get out of my office.”

She giggled. “I could ‘come’ to your office Mr. Khan, to keep you decent as the ‘upstanding’ ‘member’ of society that you are!”

There she went being bad again. The multiple emphases in that sentence charged the simplest words with a se*xual punch that hit him straight in the gut.

 

Barely two weeks and this new kid Amit was getting on his nerves. Asad sighed. It was bad enough that he’d taken to Ayaan like a duck to water. Of course, all the slackers and fun-lovers had to gang up on him. It had taken Asad months, may be even over a year, to nudge Ayaan into some form of respectability and decorum in the office. And here came a kid who was close to foiling all that hard work. Now instead of one, two voices would quip: “aapka dil dariya and dash samandar hai,” or “dash mein bumboo.”

Once again deadlines were being ditched, memos ignored. Laughter, loud backslaps and hearty guffaws echoed way past lunch-time. Asad had to often leave his office to glare them and other hangers-on into silence. Weird hand-shakes, fist bumps and swooshes … What nonsense had suddenly sprouted in his office?

“Bhai!” Ayaan would smirk and brush a careless hand through that untamed mane whenever Asad showed up in the doorway of the break room. No one, not even Asad had been able to talk Ayaan into cutting his hair short or gelling it down or doing anything that could restrain it. On some days he deigned to tie it back into a ponytail but that was it. "My hair is my shaan, my signature," he'd tell Humaira. To his brother he'd say, "aap naam se sher hain, main baal se!"  

The commotion was the same today. Asad’s forced class-monitor visits were becoming a major dash mein bumboo.

“Sir!” Amit jumped up, straight as an arrow mimicking Ayaan’s tics.

“Amit, Gupta and Sons called. Did you drop off the updated blueprints and brochures?”

“Umm … ahh … Sir … I …”

Asad crossed his arms and waited.

Ayaan saw the gathering scowl and steel. He knew Bhai had mellowed a lot these days but incompetence or compromising work was still not acceptable. If Amit didn’t watch it, he’d get his ass handed to him. “Bhai, my bad. I stalled him. He was just about to leave.”

Asad said nothing but waited for Amit to gather his backback and the roll of prints. He turned back to raise an eyebrow at Ayaan when a shame-faced Amit disappeared from sight.

“Ayaan, my office,” he nodded and was gone.

Ayaan’s head fell back. Sh*it. Bhai was in that Akdu mood of his. He’d seen that familiar nerve ticking in his forehead—Ayaan hadn’t seen that in ages. He slouched into Asad’s office and hung his legs over the arm of the easy chair he’d just settled in.

“Ayaan, you’re letting him get away with not doing much around here. If this continues I’ll have to separate you two like kindergarteners.”

“Bhai, no—”

Asad held up a hand to forestall any interruption. “Either you’ll be spending the whole day on one of the sites. Or he will. You can decide who goes with a coin-toss. Or rock-papers-scissors, or whatever.” Americanese had slyly crept into his vocabulary too. Zoya used this game all the time especially when she disagreed with him over something and tricked him into caving in. Zaid was in formal rock-paper-scissors training these days.

“Come on Bhai, that’s not fair. I agree I’ve been too relaxed with him but he’s just a kid.” Ayaan saw too much of himself in Amit even though Amit wasn’t the flirt or daredevil that he’d been in the good old days. The kid was shy and tended to space out now and then.

“I was a kid too when I interned. I worked my butt off. If Amit doesn’t shape up, I’ll let Ms. Dutt know and he can go intern somewhere else. This is not a babysitting service. Now, can you handle delegating him work or will I have to be the bad guy?”

“Look Bhaijaan, I understand your frustration. But not everyone is as driven as you. I wasn’t either. We’re all different. We all have different strengths.”

Asad grimaced. “I can’t bear to see people waste their potential. Look at Shikha who joined last year. Fresh out of college, takes initiative, puts herself out there to learn and grow her skillset …”

“Bhaijaan, Amit’s not an employee like her. She has a strong personality, knows what she wants.She's a go-getter, a self-starter—" just like you, Ayaan thought to himself feeling glum all of a sudden. 

“That’s what I like. I can see her getting a promotion by next year.”

Ayaan was getting worked up too. He didn’t know whether he was defending his own old ways or Amit’s. But he did know that he didn’t agree with Bhai on this.

“Bhai, you and I are related by blood and yet we’re complete opposites in so many ways. I love you, respect you, but even I don’t do things your way. But I get them done, right? I had to find my way and you were a great mentor. So be a mentor to Amit. But don’t expect him to be exactly like you.”

“Hmm.”

Ayaan sagged further in the chair. He wasn’t sure about the “hmm.” Was it a “fine, lets it try your way,” or was it a “shut up and leave,” wala hmm? Yikes. A firm and no-nonsense Bhaijaan was a total killjoy. If he played the bad cop to Amit the poor guy would probably kill himself. Why couldn’t Bhai see that Amit wasn’t a bad kid? That he was in complete awe of Bhaijaan and tended to freeze up whenever Bhai was around. He had already asked a million questions about Mr. Khan this and Mr. Khan that. How did he start out? Where did he go to college? Where was his first office located? When did they move to this building? Which were some of his first projects? Can we go see them?

If Ayaan didn’t know any better he’d have thought Amit had a man-crush on Bhai. But then Amit had seen Zoya when everyone was invited to the Khan house to meet the new intern.

It’s not that Amit had fallen in love with Zoya. No, it was more complicated than that. Amit had fallen in love with both Mr. and Mrs. Khan. As much as he admired him, Sir seemed remote and unapproachable. Often testy. But Ma’am was the exact opposite. In Zoya he found a lot of answers to so many of his questions about Sir. Zoya too had loved a new fan who listened to her sagas about Mr. Khan.

And then Amit had asked that question which delighted her most of all: “how did you two meet?” It endeared him to her forever.

“We didn’t meet.” Zoya answered, eyes dancing. “We collided. Three … no four times. And we hated each other for the longest time!”

Amit’s mouth fell open. No!

“Yes,” Zoya nodded, dimple blinding him. “I was the shooting star. Mr. Khan, dark matter. In fact, a black hole.” She’d glanced at her husband then and Amit caught Sir looking at her with a micro-smile.

Zoya stroked the shooting-star charm on her bracelet—a present from her husband to commemorate the second anniversary of the meteor shower night.

 

“I was sugar and spice and everything nice, and he was black and bitter coffee!” Zoya continued. They all turned to look at Asad who was holding his black mug.

As Ayaan slapped the table in glee, Sir’s smile deepened as if he’d remembered a fond detail from the past.

Ahh. The rest of the evening Amit sat saucer-eyed in front of Zoya and lapped up the entire prem kahani and its many mushkils. Humaira and Ayaan filled in gaps and blanks making each detail juicier. This storytelling lasted so long that Asad started to scowl at them from the living room. Once he even came over, a wiggly Zaid in his arms, to tower over them at the dining table and ask in a tight voice: “does everyone and their mother need to know this story?”

“YES!” Zoya and Humaira had chirped loud and clear and high-fived each other. Amit and Ayaan grinned too and Zaid felt left out of the racket. He stretched to be in Chachu’s arms. Ayaan sat him on the table where Zaid began to grab the salt and pepper shakers.

Asad walked away muttering “incredibly foolish” under his breath. His own son conspiring against him was the final straw.

And if Amit had fallen in love with Mr. and Mrs. Khan could he resist Zaid? He was smitten with the tiny hands and feet. For someone who hadn’t even glanced at babies all his life he seemed enthralled by this miniature human being who was simply perfect—down to each toenail. Because only when he played with Zaid or lifted him high in his arms to fly like an airplane did Sir look at him with a smile.

 

Asad had stewed that evening.

Amit making googly eyes at Zoya had made his fist twitch. Good god, he could see the exact moment the kid had fallen in love with his wife. Would he have to ban Amit from the house? Probably.

 

No, definitely, Asad decided when he saw Amit lean in to peer at Zoya’s bracelet with its infinite charms. If the kid actually touched any of those charms he’d get punched. And good god, please don’t let her go into detail about the handcuff charm!

Asad pressed his hands against his eyes. Why had he ever given it to her in the first place? Because it represents Mangalpur that’s why, the alien voice in his head piped. Mangalpur was the beginning of them as “us.”

If he couldn’t ban Amit from the house at least he could impose a ban on his wife telling tales about how they met and fell in love. Yeah, good luck with that Mr. Khan, the alien voice retorted. Surprisingly the alien voice sounded more and more like Zoya. He was going nuts, that must be it, Asad told himself for the third time that night.

But he smirked when he heard his wife skitter and skate around Mangalpur secrets. It’s a wonder Ayaan or Humaira hadn’t picked up on some white lies by now. Asad smiled more broadly. His wife was the queen of white lies after all. Now she was telling Amit and company about the coin-toss. The coin-toss. Jeez, she’d made a liar out of him too. Oh god. He hid his face in his hands again.

As usual she was mixing up the time line. “The bhaang pakoras and Operation Pyaasi Atma was before the coin-toss not after,” Asad felt compelled to butt in. They all looked at him and laughed.

“What?” he asked.

“See,” Zoya said, dimples deep and sure. “I told you he’d jump in to correct me. He can’t ever resist.” She exteneded a hand toward Ayaan and waggled her fingers. “Come on then, pay up!”

“What Bhaijaan, you just proved me wrong and Mona darling right all over again! I was so sure that you’d continue to be Akdu Ahmed Khan for the rest of the evening.”

Zoya took the hundred-Rupee note from her brother-in-law and stretched it between both hands as she made eyes at her husband. He almost blushed. And Amit nearly died and went to heaven when he saw Sir’s finger stroke Ma’am’s jawline. Their eyes snagged and it was almost as if they’d forgotten about anyone else being in the room.

“Bbbuuuubbuuu … mmaaammaaa,” Zaid gurgled and only then did his parents’ eyes break away guiltily. Zaid scooted toward Zoya and flung his arms around her neck. “Mumm mumm mum mum.”

“You want water, baby?” Zoya asked. He nodded, curls bouncing.

“I’ll get it.” Asad pressed his hand down on Zoya’s shoulder and turned to get Zaid’s sippy cup. When he returned with it Zaid raised his arms to be in Abbu’s godi.

Amit watched the scene mesmerized by Sir’s softer side. He watched Zoya and Asad exchange the baby. He watched Zoya wince in pain. “Let go of Ammi’s hair,” Asad told Zaid gently. “Good boy.” He watched Asad hand him the sippy cup and brush his son’s hair back on his forehead. He watched Zoya looking at both of them.

Ayaan nudged Humaira’s leg under the table. “See,” he whispered in her ear. “I told you he’s completely bewitched by your General Jeeju and his family.”

She grinned. Yeah, she saw it too. But then she frowned. If her mother were here there would be so many kala teekas to apply. She brushed a finger under an eye and rose to swipe that finger behind Zaid’s ear.

“Laa keekaa,” he cooed as he tried to grab her hand.

“Yes, kala teeka for Chhoti Nani’s jaan! She sent it especially for you!”

He looked around the room. Chhoti Nani was here? Where? Zaid struggled to be let down. He needed to go find her.

Humaira went to stand behind Zoya and swiped the remaining kajal behind her sister’s ear.

“Humaira, what’s up?”

“Nothing, Appi. Just something I needed to do.”

Asad saw and understood. His wife might not believe in nazars or evil eyes. But his sister-in-law was still conventional in many ways. Sometimes they all remembered the past and gave silent thanks for surviving the terrors of a lifetime. May be that’s what Humaira was doing too. He patted her head and smiled when she looked up at him. “Good girl,” he murmured.

She beamed. He leaned in closer. “Tell your Aapi to shut up about this love story business, I beg of you.”

Humaira giggled. “Allah miyan, what’s wrong with you, Jeeju! Me tell Aapi to shut up about something? Impossible! Besides, I love hearing this story too. It’s so incredibly foolish!”

Asad rolled his eyes. But his irritation didn’t last for long. Because soon Ayaan brought out the guitar from its hibernation. Zaid was given his. And everyone sang their song as father and son strummed for them.

If Amit had been a writer this would be the moment when he’d decide to write a fan fiction. But Amit wasn’t a writer. No, he was a musician of sorts too. He wrote songs—many, many of them in his secret red diary. It was his dream to be a lyricist in Bollywood. To work with big name music composers. To write songs that heroes and heroines would sing and dance to. And in his head he was already writing one right now. Because he’d found his muse.

Muses, rather.  





Title in Song:

Dilwale (2016): "Janam Janam"






Jul 15

Itti Si Hansi, Itti Si Khushi, Itta Sa Tukda Chand Ka (By Dixiej) (Thanked: 8 times)

Chapter 134




It was Asad's turn to wake up with a start this night. Zoya would have continued sleeping had she not had her palm on his chest.

"Asad?" she whispered shaking a strand of hair off her face. "Are you OK? What happened?

His tense silence made her shiver and she gathered the comforter more securely around them. Asad shook it off.

She sat up too massaging his chest. "Asad?"

"Hmm?" He seemed disoriented. 

"What is it, baby?"

He looked at her then. But in the dark he could only make out her silhouette. Asad took her hand and squeezed it tight. "Nothing. Everything's OK. Go back to sleep."

When he'd spent a good ten minutes tossing and turning she placed a steadying hand on his shoulder. "Enough, already! Spill it. Tell me what's bothering you."

"It's silly."

"That's OK. Nothing wrong with being silly. I'm queen of silly, but catch me hiding anything from you!"

She detected a half-smile in his, "hmm."

"Asaadd," she coaxed.

He exhaled. He may as well tell her. She wouldn't back off from any mystery; Asad was sure her spidey senses were already dancing.

"I hate the idea that when Amna or Nilofer grow older they'll have periods. What if they are really painful? Or they get sick? What if I can't do anything to protect them from that?" 

An explosive giggle rumbled through her. Before he could duck his head in embarrassment Zoya scooted up next to him and pinched his cheek, hard. "You are so cute!" 

Asad grunted in protest. He knew she'd laugh at him. 

Zoya half-rose to smother his face in kisses. "That's the sweetest, most darling thing I've heard from you yet, Mr. Khan! Keep being you, OK? Never EVER change!"

When they'd settled into a somewhat comfortable pose she tired to calm his fears. 

"Asad?" 

"Hmm?"

"I know you want to protect everyone you love but you do know that you can't completely keep them from being hurt, right?" 

He huffed. Of course he knew that. Theoretically, that is. Most of his life he'd grown up being extra vigilant about Ammi and Najma. Zoya knew too. That's why he'd earned the nickname Jahanpanah from her. Most of his adult life he'd spent being a growly warden of the women who doted on him.

"No matter what you do you won't be able to make the pain or hurt go away entirely," Zoya said softly. 

Asad sighed even more heavily. He knew that now much better than two-three years ago. He'd tried so hard to keep Abbu from hurting Ammi. But no matter what he did he couldn't stop the hurt. He'd built the strongest walls, the highest fortress but pain seemed to seep through from under the cracks, through ghostly crevices. The air heavy with sighs, remained still and stale. On that one day, the day of her phantom wedding anniversary, Ammi would shatter all over again. He would feel helpless as she wallowed in grief. And even worse when she tried to hide it from him. She'd secretly visit the Dargah, and he would make it a point to take time off from work to escort her, to ensure that she didn't bump into his father "accidentally" … but more to make sure she had a firm shoulder to cry on.

But all that hard work and unscabbed anger was for nought. 

She still hurt even after all these years. Only acceptance and openness had erased some of that pain. Forgiveness had helped gutting the walls to let the sun and breeze in to breathe new life. "Tum ayee, toh zindagi aa gayee," Ammi had once said to Zoya. Yeah, Zoya—the zindagi-bringer had more than helped! How many times had she reminded him of the meaning of her name!

Asad knew that now. 

With Najma too he'd tried to be over-protective. But she had tried to sneak behind his back whether it was to go to the mall, or watch films or matches, or to try western clothes or hairstyles.

What was the point? She wore western clothes now and the world hadn't ended. What mattered was that she was happy. 

But his daughters would be so tiny and defenseless. How could he not think of dying inside if they felt even a prick of pain?

Zoya turned his face around. "Remember I told you, you aren't Superman. You're Batman sure, but you can't solve every problem, you can't make every little thing right."

"But—"

"Just trust us," she added. "We're strong. We'll get through it. Whether it's Ammi, or Najma, or me. Or even Amna or Nilofer. Our pain is ours. We'll fix it our own damn selves. You can help by just being there."

Just trust us. 

Well, that's where he'd gone all wrong, hadn't he?

He hadn't trusted Ammi or Najma to know or do what was right for them. He'd assumed he knew better. Because he was a man? And just because they let him get away with his alpha male routine didn't mean that they believed he was right. No. They'd let him be an overbearing, obnoxious, pain in the butt because they loved him. Plain and simple. Controlling their lives had allowed him the fantasy of walling out pain. The irony of it all was that they carried the pain around within them. The walls became a gilded tomb ... with them inside, forced to live out some ancient fairytale curse.

Zoya was right to call him Jahahpanah.

"You'll have to let the kids make their own mistakes, you know. Just because you did things one way and they do it another, doesn't mean they'll be wrong," Zoya tried to make him understand the shades of parenting. 

Funny, Ayaan had said something similar to him yesterday. 

Asad shifted to draw her closer and tuck Zoya's head under his chin. She loved the feel of his stubble against her temple. He ran his fingers down her scarred arm. "You know, for someone who seems so wise about these things, you try to fix things too all the time! I remember a girl who tried to fix me with green tea and dark chocolate once."

Zoya giggled remembering her many misunderstandings of an inscrutable Mr. Khan from the past. She'd thought he was in love and depressed. He wasn't. Instead he'd been livid at her typical "be-akal assumptions."

"This girl tried to fix my relationship with my father," Asad went on. "She even fixed an ambulance ride so I could meet my brother. All to make me smile and be less angry."

Zoya sighed with pleasure. Now which girl wouldn't like her husband singing her praises? "Be less akdu actually. Umm, Mr. Khan, I'm usually right, remember? No, cross that. I'm always right! Besides you needed a special kind of fixing! You stomped around in an armor of thorns wrapped in poison ivy!"

Asad snorted at the mixed up gardening metaphors. "So you decided you'd prune away the brush?" Why was he getting the sense that she was spinning some Beauty-and-the-Beast kind of tale here?

"Um-hmm. It was easy. You were like a pineapple hard and prickly on the outside but sweet and mushy on the inside." 

OK, scratch that. This was no Beauty and the Beast. Mrs. Khan was headed in Spongebob Squarepants territory apparently.

"Please, I'm no pineapple!"

"Are too." 

"Am not!" Asad groaned. "Wait, don't tell me you're craving pineapple now?"

"Mmm, pineapple milkshake!" She made satisfied slurping sounds.

"And where in the world am I going to get pineapple milkshake in the middle of the night?" Would his daughters have similar nonsensical cravings? Simple. He'd stock up on every bizarre food combination there was. 

Zoya pouted meanwhile. "I guess I'll just have to make do with Jahanpanah pineapple for now. But you owe me one later OK, Mr. Khan?"

  

An hour later and he still couldn't sleep. Something he's read during his research was still bothering him. Zoya ran her fingers through his hair. "Still can't sleep?" she whispered. 

He exhaled.

She scooted closer to kiss his back. "What's it now?"

He turned to her. "At what age did you start your periods?"

Oh god, Jahanpanah's needle was still stuck on one topic. "I think I was around 13 and a half. Why?" 

"So young? But I read that girls are starting their periods at an earlier age now."

She nodded. She'd heard about that too. "Yes, I've heard some girls are now getting their periods at 9." 

"What? But they are still babies at that age! Asad tried to think of what he was like as a nine-year-old. He was already a Bhaijaan to Ayaan and Najma by then. He tried to act like a little man then but he still liked to play cricket, catch frogs, prank Ayaan ... race on his bike. He'd skinned his knee that year and Ammi had nearly fainted at the sight of blood. A cricket ball had nearly taken a tooth out ... 

"It's not fair to be a kid and to have adulthood forced on you," he brooded. 

Zoya nodded. He'd been forced to be all grown-up in his childhood too. "I know. I hate that too." It bothered her even more to think that when girls' periods started within a year they stopped growing in height. The earlier they started, the shorter they'd be. How unfair was that! To be smaller, more petite, and therefore more vulnerable ... But she better not tell her husband. He would never sleep for the rest of his life! 

Zoya sat up to rub his chest in circles. "Do you want me to get you some hot milk? It'll help you sleep better." 

"No, I'll be fine."

"I don't mind. You sure?"

"Um-hmm." 

"Hot milk and you the perfect pineapple milkshake?" She waggled her brows at him.

Asad smiled and shook his head.

Zoya ran her hand over his stubble. "Asad, we won't be able to protect her completely but I know you'll try your best and that's all that matters, OK? You're the best dad to Zaid, you'll be the same to the girls." She was pretty sure Najma and Ayaan would agree he was a better dad to them than their father. Mr. Khan's daddy instincts were hard won. And spot on.

"But—"

She placed a firm finger on his mouth. "Can you stop the sun from rising?" 

"No." 

"Would you want to, if you could?" 

" ... No." He didn't get the point of this discussion. But his wife had some torturous ways of making sense.

"You're our sun, remember? Mine. Ammi's. Zaid's. Have you forgotten that quote: 'When it was dark, you always carried the sun in your hand for me'?" 

He remained thoughtful.

"What does the sun and the moon have to do with anything?" Asad asked finally. She was taking too damn long to get to the point.

Zoya huffed. Yup, Ammi was right about Mr. Khan. He needed things spelled out for him every now and then. No emotional shorthand or poetic symbolism for her husband even if it was the freaking middle of the night. And maybe she didn't know where she was going with the analogy but did he have to ruin a sweet moment by being so logical and precise? 

"It means that things will happen that may be beyond our control. But for things you can control, I know you'll do everything in your power to protect us. So stop doubting yourself. Even if you can't do everything, I know you'll die trying and that is all that matters."

"Really?" 

"Really." She couldn't believe how often he'd spin himself into a self-doubting frenzy when it came to the people he loved most. Her husband was terrified of being a terrible father and she couldn't blame him. For a man who had lived more than half his life trying to prove and define himself as the opposite of his father it was hard for him to come to grips with the vulnerabilities of fatherhood. For a young boy who had lived at the sooty edge of sunlight, being a good dad was his biggest challenge. He really would die trying.

"You know, dads don't have to be perfect to be the best dads in the world." Zoya cupped his face.

"They don't?" 

"No. And who knows this better than the two of us?" She added after a pause. Zoya rose and padded over to Zaid's crib. Her husband needed just a little more of nudge to be fully reassured.

"Zoya?" 

"Shh." 

She brought over a sleeping Zaid and placed him next to Asad. 

"What're you doing?" Asad asked. 

"Let him sleep with us tonight. I think he'll be the best therapy for you." 

Asad's palm fluttered over Zaid's chest. He kissed the tiny forehead and breathed in the baby scent. He couldn't resist raising Zaid's foot and kissing it. It was getting warmer no more footy pajamas. He used to recite Allah's name over his son in the womb and out of it. Yes. This was heaven. How often had his mother and wife reminded him to enjoy the present instead of overplanning or stressing for the future? Give thanks for the small miracles, Zoya would spout some new agey cra*p as he mentally rolled his eyes. But it made sense right now. 

Right now, right here. Cherish this. Take a mental picture, Mr. Khan. Click. 

Asad laughed softly. 

"What?" she demanded as she re-settled on her side. She hated it when she wasn't included in the fun.

"You just can't help yourself either! Typical Ms. Fix-it," he said. "You just tried to cure my restlessness by bringing Zaid over," he teased. 

Zoya smiled. "Well, of course! If something can be fixed I'll do it. As will you. But you seem to worry about the unfixable things, Mr. Khan!" 

"Why did you have to tell Amit the whole story about how we met? Must everyone on the planet know?"

Typical Mr. Khan! Change the subject when she diagnosed him right and he couldn't shut her up. "Yes Mr. Khan, they must. In fact, there's going to be a test on it." 

He snorted. "Really? A test?" 

"Of course! For instance, if I ever stand for election what will my election symbol be?"

"Easy. Pepper spray!" He was the one who'd teased her about this a long time ago.

"Ding, ding, ding, ding, correct! OK ... umm ... What color was I wearing on our second meeting?" Asking about their first meeting was too easy. 

"Royal blue." He didn't take even a fraction of a second to blurt out the answer. 

"Good job, Mr. Khan! You even remembered the shade of blue so detail-oriented my Jahanpanah is. Now, how many runs did Dhoni make in the match that Najma and I went to see without your permission?" 

Asad was smiling by now fully aware of what she was up to. "67, not out." 

"Nice! Do you remember that first night when you sent me flying from the bed to the floor? What did you say later to insult my sense of direction?"

Asad laughed even as he covered his face in embarrassment. God, how angry had he been at this woman all those days! But she had been totally impossible in those days as well. "Hmm, I think I said something like: 'aapko right and wrong mein fark toh pehle se hi nahin pata tha, par ab right aur left mein phi—' " 

Zoya did little golf claps to applaud him yet not wake up Zaid. "Ok, last question for one million dollars! Once, I misplaced my chocolate sauce. Where was it?" 

She heard the smile in his voice. "It was on the side table in the living room and ended up on my hands."

"Perfect score! Now tell me Mr. Khan, when you went to wash your hands that day, did you secretly lick the sauce off your fingers?"

"No." He had dashed to grab a million napkins to wipe the offending sauce instead. "But now I wish I had. Their fingers entwined. 

"I always wondered about that," Zoya's voice dipped.

"Maybe next time you can lick it off my fingers." 

She had. Many times over. But they could rinse and repeat, couldn't they? 

Zoya said nothing. Because she'd fallen asleep. 

Asad smiled again. She had stayed up with him to fix his fears, soothe his doubts of fatherhood and then teased and tested him into wellbeing. As he drifted off to sleep an old image of hers stuck in his mind: her first few weeks in the house Zoya had wanted to install a security system to protect her precious Phuphi.

Her protective instincts were as hardcore as his. He still remembered blundering into the millions of wires that snaked around the living room. He had lost another brand new phone that night thanks to a meddling and irrespressible Ms. Farooqui ...

Tomorrow night it would be his turn to test her. Let's see if Mrs. Khan's memory was as good ... as her other skills. Asad smirked to himself. He'd make it a game of strip poker. With each incorrect answer she'd have to shed a piece of her clothing. 

But he needed to ask tough questions, not easy-peasy ones she could— 

  

"Allah miyan, what's wrong with me?" Zoya muttered. She was unpacking her tote from the New York trip. It'd been ages since they'd returned and she'd shoved this in the back of the closet intending to tackle it later. Later just never seemed to come soon enough.

She peered in the bag and wrinkled her nose. There was a funky smell and Zoya was afraid of the ecosystem she'd unearth. 

"I should keep a pair of latex gloves with me like cops at a crime scene, she fantasized, channeling her Olivia Benson-Kate Becket avatar and already distracted from the task at hand. 

Zoya gingerly removed an American orange that Aapi had sneaked into her bag at the last minute as they left for the airport. It was now nothing but a puff of fungal dust. Welcome to India, little orange corpse. Jeez, she better get rid of this offending scr*ap of compost before Asad came home. 

She wasn't planning on taking the bag but then only this one was big enough to carry her remaining samples and supplies for their meeting with the State Museum Director. They already had a full rolling case. Zoya crossed her fingers and looked to the ceiling.

"Please, Allah miyan! This contract could really be our chance to make it! It'd be MA. Please, please, please, please, please make it happen!"

"Who're you talking to?"

Dang, she hadn't heard Asad walk in. She tried to hide the bag behind her as she rose to kiss him. 

Asad's eyes narrowed. 

"Hmm?" 

"Hmm what?" 

"Aap abhi kis se baat kar rahin theen?" 

"Apne aap se! Don't you already know that, Jahanpanah? I do that sometimes." 

She backed away from him and dashed out of the room before he could detain her with more questions. Zoya was good at voh-main-actually dodge games but right now there wasn't any time for it. She better get the bag cleaned out or he'd have her dip it bleach. Or dump it in the trash. 

Zoya ran to the backyard and emptied the bag upside down on the grass. 

"Ugh," she scr*ewed up her face again. "Zoya Farooqui, you're such a freakin' mess."

She sorted out a pen, crumpled boarding passes.

"Aww, so cute!" she gushed when she spied Zaid's boarding pass. Even though he wasn't old enough for a seat by himself he still got a boarding pass. His name in print: KHAN/ZAID made her smile. 

Her eyes skimmed the rest of it. PRIORITY BOARDING. 

Awwn. 

Zoya wiped the paper on her shirt. This would go in his baby book. With pictures that they'd taken of Zaid on the flight. In Ammi's lap, fast asleep. Arching and crying in Humaira's arms because he wanted to crawl not sleep. Eating his breakfast.

"Zoya?" 

Oh god, here comes Jahanpanah and she was only half-done. She used the tiny hand sanitizer dispenser from the debris and rubbed it over the boarding pass too. Zoya would joke to Dilshad that in their house they worried less about baby-proofing the house and more about Asad-proofing it.

"What're you hiding from me?"

Damn, busted.

"Umm, nothing. I was just— Allah miyan, what's wrong with you, Mr. Khan! Why would I hide something from you? "

Arms crossed, Asad leaned against the jamb of the sliding door. He'd loosened his tie and undone the top button. 

He waited for her fake tirade to end. 

"So?" he asked when she paused. 

"I need this bag for the meeting tomorrow. Just looking at the junk that piled up in here."

"Please tell me you cleaned it out when you got back from New York."

She ignored him.

Brightening up, she ran to him. "Look what I found? How cute is Zaid's boarding pass!" 

Thank god, she'd wiped it already. Asad looked down at it and smiled too. Neither commented on how the boarding pass discovery just proved that she hadn't cleaned out the bag since the trip. 

"Baby book souvenir?" Asad asked.

"For sure!" 

Since his broad back hid her from Ammi's view Zoya reached up to run a finger down the vee of his shirt. She let a nail scr*ape his skin and grinned when he hissed. Asad trapped her errant finger.

"Mrs. Khan behave, your tricks won't work on me." 

She licked her lips. "They won't?"

Asad's eyes dragged to that se*xy pout. "No, he whispered tapping her nose with a fingertip. "I still remember that you're trying to hide something from me." 

Zoya made a face. Asad laughed softly as he ran a knuckle down her cheek to trial it over her chin. Reflexively her face leaned into his palm. Zoya's eyes drooped. 

"Fine, I'll let it go. Khush?" he said.

She clasped her hands to her front, "incandescent!"

Asad rolled his eyes. Drama queen. 

She grabbed his hand and started to walk inside. 

"Umm Zoya, aren't you forgetting something?"

"What?"

He jerked his chin to the lawn. And that's when she saw the bag lying face down, ass up. 

"Gadhi," she muttered under her breath as she slapped her head. Zoya ran back to collect the bag and its contents. 

Asad chuckled. He reached down to heft Zaid up into his arms. The little guy had crawled up and pulled himself up by tugging on Abbu's pants. 

Yup, this. Asad loved coming home to this. 

Because it wasn't just his son or wife who created happy havoc in his life. Dobby contributed his best too. Like the time he'd got his head stuck in a bottle as he tried to get to the cookie crumbs at the bottom of the jar. Thank god, the jar was plastic and not glass! But it had taken over half an hour trying to cut if off him; petrified the cat had jumped and scratched his rescuers after bumping into various walls. Only Asad had been able to calm him down and patiently extract the little beast from the jaws of death. Dobby had scrambled to hide under the bed  to lick off his wounded dignity.

"Hey, tiger! Did you have a good day?" Asad asked his son as he buried his face in his piece of heaven tinged with familiar baby scents. 

"Gud dayyy goo daaa," Zaid babbled, cheeks rosy.

 

Zaid was giggling and squealing as he struggled to break free. Abbu was holding him hostage and chewing his foot; it tickled like mad. 

"Will you eat Abbu's face now," Asad fake-growled between tiny nicks of the perfect little toes. "Will you?"

Zaid rolled over and sat up. He opened his arms for Asad to pick him up of course he wasn't making any promises just yet.

"I missed you too, tiger," Asad said planting a kiss on his son's head.

"Ahhbbuuu bu bu," Zaid patted his face and bent to kiss or eat his dad's face. Same thing.

It was the middle of the week. 

Asad had come home early to hang out with Zaid because Zoya would be out late. She and Humaira had that meeting to go to. They were excited and terrified about it. Thank god, Siddiqui Saheb would be with them, Asad told himself for the tenth time.

When they were in New York Siddiqui Saheb and Raziya had stepped in to supervise the factory. Zoya and Humaira didn't want to use their Abbu's influence or contacts to wrangle this meeting but Asad finally managed to convince them to go for it.

"I know you girls want to strike out on your own. I'm not trying to be patronizing. But think of your bigger mission to create awareness for women's rights, broaden your market. With more money, you can do so much more! Things you've been putting off." He took Zoya's hand in his. "You wanted to do that prom thing for the kids at the orphanage. You could do that."

The gleam in her eyes and the stubborn set to her chin told him he'd scored. With the Museum gift shop order for historical dolls they could really create a niche for themselves.

It wasn't so hard to see Zoya work out of home any more. Though it had taken some getting used to, for sure. His Jahanpanah-mode as she liked to call it, was not easy to switch off. But not for the reasons Zoya would have assumed two years ago. Two years ago Asad expected her to invite trouble with her brazen tehzeeblessness and American chutzpah. Now Asad worried about her facing se*xism and harassment from the men she'd encounter. He worried more she would trip, get hurt, not eat, get into a fight, beat up someone, end up in jail well, pretty much the things that she'd already ended up doing. But you just never knew with Zoya. She was a musibat-magnet after all.


"Oww!"

"What now?" Asad asked though he shouldn't have bothered. He and Dilshad looked at each other and grinned. Dilsahd was shaking her head.

"Nuffing," Zoya called out from the kitchen an entire second later. She was munching on some junk food for sure. Well at least she didn't say "negatory," like she often did when he knew she was keeping something from him.

"Hmm," Asad rumbled from behind the newspaper. Typical. Taking this long to respond she must've have bumped into or dropped something.

Initially when he used to hear Zoya yelp, his heart would stop. Asad would bolt to find out how badly she was hurt. But now? Now he just rolled his eyes. This was Zoya. She ran into things, stubbed her toes, knocked her elbow at least two times a day. How could anyone bump into things that hadn't moved for two years?

Well Zoya could.

In bed he would see mystery bruises on her arms or legs. The ocassional burn marks still freaked him out. If there was a way to burn yourself from an iron or a tava Zoya would find it.

"What happened here?"

"... I don't remember, would be her careless reply.

Asad would grip his forehead in despair. "How can you not know when or how you got hurt!

She'd shrug and go about doing her usual thing, which meant munching on potato chips while scrolling on her iPad.

"Mr. Khan, it's no big deal."

"No big deal! You get hurt almost every day and it's no big deal?"

"Asad chill, it's nothing! She'd show him the inside of her arm or the top of her hand. "See, the skin here is so thin, it's easy to show bruises."

"My skin is thin too on this part of the arm, then why don't I get hurt as easily?" That would piss her off.

"Are you trying to say I'm a hopeless klutz?"

"If the shoe fits …"

"Mr. Khan!"

"Do you remember when you dropped the knife in the kitchen and it fell on your foot?" He hadn't seen it happen; she'd told him about it afterward. But each time he thought of that incident he could see it clearly in his mind in slow motion. It made him crazy but she remained nonchalant.

"Yeah, so?"

"So Ammi and Najma have never ever had such injuries. Why's it only you?"

Other times he would laugh at her when she put her silly cartoon bandaids on which was practically every week.

"For such a tiny thing? You're such a baby."

"It hurts under water, she'd pout that pout and he'd usually forget what they were fighting about.

But yes, their bandaid consumption had gone up since Zoya had moved in. On their return from New York last month, Aapi had pressed a tin in his hands.

"Rakh lo. I used to buy them in bulk from Costco but now we have no use for these bandages. Humari Bandaid-queen toh ab aapke ghar me gadar machati hogi!"

True. And wasn't Bandaid-queen the perfect moniker!

"You are so impossible and so cute, I don't know what to do with you," he had said one day after another injury's mystery remained unsolved.

"Who said you have to do anything at all," Zoya groused. Trust Mr. Khan trying to make everything perfect. "It drives you crazy right, that you can't control things! Control freak!"

"I'm not a control freak. You drive me crazy!"

"You are. And good! Serves you right!"

"How does it serve me right when you're the one who gets hurt each time?" His exasperation knew no bounds. Why did he insist on arguing with her when he knew it was a lost case?

Zoya had no comeback for that. "Umm ... voh actually …"

"Yes, Ms. Farooqui, tell me, how actually?"

"Mr. Khan, stop bugging me!"

"I'm bugging you! I just want you to be more careful, watch where you're going, heaven forbid, even look before you turn so that you don't trip …"

Would the kids inherit the klutz gene? Asad gripped his forehead. He should probably buy stock in 3M or Johnson and Johnson.

"Mid-ter Kaa!"

Zaid was scolding him for bugging his Ammi too. He had just finished sharing his buttered toast with Dobby. Crumbs clung to both baby and kitty faces.

"Ammi ke chamche," Asad growled as he hurried to wipe his son's face with a napkin.

This was a bone of contention too in the Khan house. Why did Zaid insist on sharing his food with Dobby?

"It's so gross. Think of the germs in Dobby's mouth!"

"Mr. Khan, as usual you're missing the point!" Zoya corrected him.

"Oh really? And what's the point, exactly? Diarrhea? E. Coli poisoning! Listeria?"

"Allah miyan, what's wrong you, Mr. Khan! How can you even say such horrid things! Can't you see how adorable is it that Zaid shares a bite with Dobby before feeding himself? Doesn't it make you proud to see your son be so kind, so gentle? Won't he be an awesome Bhaijaan?"

Asad sighed. On so many things they were still oil and water. Chalk and cheese. Train rails that ran together but never met. So many clichs and yet not a single one to define the 4D wholeness of their relationship. Why would he even want to?

Zaid smirked a toothy grin at him clapping his grubby hands, and Asad felt a zenness flood him.

Right now, right here. Cherish this. Take a mental picture, Mr. Khan.

Click.

Asad looked around the living room. It was no longer pristine as it used to be in the old days. He used to read so much back then. Now a book on the coffee table showed bite marks as Zaid's favorite chew toy. Zaid's books were stacked on the floor. Goodnight Moon, The Poky Little Puppy series, Dr. Seuss books ... Well, thank god, his son liked books too. He liked to eat them too but that was another matter.

A few days ago he'd walked into the bathroom and done a double-take. Paint smudges and splotches on the bathtub had him clutching his heart.

"Here, Mr. Khan. Hold him," Zoya had dumped a squirmy and freshly-bathed Zaid in his arms as she rolled up her sleeves to scrub the tub.

"Um ... what happened here?" Asad asked when he regained his voice.

"Nothing happened here, Zoya called out from the depths of the tub," ass wiggling in the air. "But I wouldn't go into the guest room if I were you," she added, breathless with the exertion.

Asad gulped. And not because Zaid had yanked at his tie. The guest room aka Zoya's former room. They were planning to convert it into Zaid's room. Eventually. When they would feel that being twenty feet away from him wasn't like him being in New York.


Together the family was painting a 3D mural on an entire wall. At the bottom, there was even room for Zaid to finger paint and add colorful handprints. There would be a plane that resembled the one Anwar had given him. Elephants and horses, lions and cheetahs. Asad had penciled in most of the outlines. The paints were proving to be a challenge. So many choices. What if he messed up? He'd made his lists and spreadsheets, Zoya had made him sit through countless youtube videos. He felt ready enough.

Ayaan wanted to add spaceships, and soccer and basket balls. Humaira had told him he couldn't have them all.

"Pick one!"

"Fine, when we have a baby I'll decide which balls go on the wall!"

He'd frowned when Humaira doubled over with laughter.

"Humaira begum, what's so funny?"

"Balls on the walls …" she couldn't take a breath.

Ayaan guffawed when he thought about what he'd just said. Thank god, Bhaijaan wasn't in the room. Would be total dash mein bumboo. And thank god, Mona darling wasn't there either. She'd be sure to tell Bhai about it.

Only Zaid was there, crawling on the floor getting more paint on himself. All these days he'd been trying to stand up, But he would only last a minute before collapsing in a frustrated heap.

"Aaann  nnhhh," he'd rage. "Laaa maaa, whaa! he roared today slapping the toopid wall.

"Ayaan, I think he's trying to say 'Allah miyan what's wrong with me!' Isn't he adorable, trying to copy Aapi?"

"Please, it's his usual gibberish. You girls always imagine him smarter than he really is."

"Ayaan, how can you say that? Humaira scolded him. "Take that back! Zaid is smart! He's way smarter than you, at least."

Zaid stood up yet again. He raised his hands to clap for himself and tottered. But this time he brought both his hands up to support himself against the wall.

"Yaaayaaayayayaya!" 

Humaira and Ayaan had stopped mid-fight to watch their nephew. When this time Zaid didn't fall, they cheered.

"Yaaay!" Ayaan jumped up to scoop and spin Zaid in the air. "Mera sher, mera cheetah! I knew you could do it, champ!"

Zaid beamed. He smeared paint on Chachu's beard.

"See?" Humaira added, her fists on her hips. "I told you he's smart!"

"He is! He's my chhota Einstein. My Genius Ahmed Khan!

"Oh sh*it!" Humaira slapped a hand across her mouth.

"What?"

"I should've recorded him when he stood on his own."

"Look who's not so smart," Ayaan said to Zaid. "Hum shero'n se competition?"

He looked at his wife's crestfallen face. "Arre Humaira begum, don't be so glum. Chhod do saare gham, Zaid miyan dega humein lakho'n re-run!"

"Ayaan," she couldn't resist laughing at his atrocious shayari. "You're so useless!"

"I'm super useful!" Ayaan crowed as Zaid bounced in his arms. "Don't forget, it was my shayari that made you fall for me!"

She blushed. "Never!"

"Liar!" Ayaan teased. "Remember this one?

     Khamoshi aapke saare raaz kholti hain,

     Khamoshi apke saare raaz kholti hain,

     Suniye, aap khud toh talkative hain hee

     Aapki toh jutti bhi bolti hain."

"Oh god," she groaned. "Not again." She'd been really annoyed with him that day for being his flirty, arrogant self.

"Agay, agay …" Zaid babbled, clapping some more.

"Again? See, even my chhota sher wants to hear more of his Chachu's sher-o-shayari!"

Humaira really slapped her head this time. Poor kid. Between his mom and Chachu's shayari he didn't stand a chance. Oh my god Allah miyan, would there be a third bad shayar in the family! Incredibly foolish, as Jeeju would say. And then there were the ocassional badmash Ayaan moments that often got them both in trouble. The guy really had no censor-sensor! Like when, last Sunday, back at the Siddiqui house, Dadi was playing with Zaid?

"Mera suraj, mera chanda. Mera sona, mera chandi," she was rocking Zaid for his nap.

"Ummm mmm," Zaid felt compelled to hum in drowsy answer or agreement.

It was after lunch. Everyone else was in food coma too.

"Mera chand ka tukda," Dadi cooed.

"Itti si hansi, itti si khushi, itta tukda chand ka," Zoya hummed. She sang that song for Zaid sometimes. His eyes widened and he wiggled to stand up. He loved this song and often tried to dance to it.

Humaira couldn't resist. She bent over Dadi to stroke Zaid's cheek. One second he was straining against Badi Dadi the next second he was fast asleep, petal lips slightly parted.

"My chand ka tukda too. Piece of my moon," she said softly as she kissed her fingers and touched his lips.

"Humph, moonpiece kahin ka!" Ayaan scoffed. "I could show you a whole full moon, Humaira begum," he added.

"Ayaan!" Asad had been horrified at this full-on parents-ke-samne besharmi.

But Zoya snorted and laughed and laughed and laughed. Nuzzhat hadn't heard Ayaan.

"What? What's so funny? Tell meee!"

Asad had tried to quell her with his Jahanpanah glare so she looked at Zoya for help. But Zoya was still rolling on the ground.  

Nuzzhat was outraged. "I'm no longer a baby, you know! I know things. I'm even engaged." She showed everyone her ring.

"Kya badmashi kar rahein hain aap log?" Shireen asked. She was rolling paans for everyone.

"Nothing, Ammi! Nuzzhat is no longer a baby. We all need to call her 'Sabse Badi bi' from now on!"

"Bhaijaan!"

He bared his paan-stained teeth at her.

"Uff, gross!" she said making a face.

"Shh, chup karo tum sab! See, Siddiqui saheb has fallen asleep," Raziya said.

She was itching to get her hands on Zaid but Badi Bi also had rights after all. And at least she'd had her ghee-badaam maalish fill with her grandson before lunch. Raziya sighed. Now that he was bigger it was harder to keep him in one place. He always wiggled now and tried to sit up or crawl away.

"So Zoya, tell us more about this prom thing?" Raziya asked. Only recently had she mastered this alien word. When she first heard Zoya say the word, she'd almost fainted. 

Zoya was on her knees, still trying to catch her breath. Asad went over to pull her upright. His hand lingered at her waist; their eyes caught. Dilshad coughed and they broke away.

"Umm Aunty, it's a kind of a graduation party for the seniors at a high school. There's music, dancing, food, some kind of a theme ... and yes! The crowning of a homecoming king and queen!"

"But how will you do it at the Children's Center? We have only about 9 or 10 kids in the twelfth?" Dilshad asked.

"That's no problem, Ammi. We'll have the party for all the kids instead. They've just finished their exams. Everyone's graduating into the next class so it's something to celebrate!"

Asad nodded. Trust his wife to find instant solutions. Ms. Fix-it was patting herself on the back too. 

"Theme party ... like a costume party?" Ayaan asked.

"Not really. It's more like them wearing formal clothes and having fun. The theme could be a beach theme or fantasy. Winter ball or a masquerade ... anything. The kids generally vote on it."

"But how will you get clothes for so many children?" Raziya asked. "For some girls, depending on size, maybe we all could donate some of our nicer suits which we've only worn once or twice. But The boys …?"

Everyone looked at Ayaan.

Zoya sniggered.

"Hey, watch it," Ayaan hissed.

"We can certainly give away some of Mr. Khan's shirts and ties but Raabert here …"

"Ayaan Bhaijaan ke phate-purane jeans and t-shirts toh dene layak hi nahin hain," Nuzzhat teased.

"They're one of a kind! Vintage and classic," he said holding up his Che Guevara t-shirt.

"We do have some money set aside for clothes. And we're hoping for some sponsor donations," said Humaira as she crossed her fingers.


All the grown-ups talked of grown-up things and Zaid dreamed of running.

Sprinting, flying and leaping.

Far, far away from hands that wanted to hold him down and pinch his cheeks. Up, up and away from teekas and grandmotherly arms that restrained him in their doting laps.

La mya, wuts rong wi dem!

He would run and kick and hop and jump ...

But he needed to be free in order to do that. And right now, with so many grown-ups running around him, that was impossible.

Hmm, he needed little pooping, squirting babies to distract the army of Khans and Siddiquis from overprotecting him when he was on a secret mission. He needed little-oo wingmen to divert dadis and nanis, and dadus and nanus from supervising every move of his.

Zaid's eyes popped open. He waved his arms about wanting to be let down.

Immediately.

When Badi Dadi let him go he homed straight for his Chachu.

Ayaan picked him up and swung him in the air. "Hey, mera champ!"

Zaid squealed. When back at eye level he looked at his Chachu dead in the eye. He pinched his Chachu's cheeks to get the man's attention. The beard tickled his little fingertips. This was so important!

"Zaaf! Ba ba ba baaaby!"

"Yesh, baby Zaaf," Khala came over to croon over her favorite boys.

"Bay bay bay Zaaf!" Zaid caught hold of Khala's hair and told her urgently by tugging on it.

Khala pinched his cheeks and Zaid frowned. His expression mirrored his Ammi's: tiny frown on top, pouty lip at bottom.

"Bay bay bay BAAAY!"

His useless Chachu and Khala were not understanding his command.

Zaid looked around for his mom. She would explain to these two: have babies right now, Allah miyan. Get this family off my back!

"Kya keh raha hai?" Rashid asked everyone. "He looks so serious."

"I think he's telling his Chachu and Khala to have some babies—like Zaaf," Zoya said before being hit by another giggle attack.

Chachu looked horrified and Khala fled the scene.

Zaid slapped his forehead and pinched his nose like he'd seen Abbu do. These people!

Indedlly foolis.





Song in Title:

Barfi (2012): "Itti si Hansi"

 

 





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