SHORT STORY SHARE
Welcome to the February installment of Short Story Share.
This month, in honor of Valentine's Day, I offer you an original love story. Enjoy!
Love in a Time of Chaos
In 1956 Nairobi, 13 year-old Mumtaz led an idyllic life. She played with dolls. She loved her frocks. Then, when she turned 12 and could no longer wear them, she loved the shalwar kameez pant suits the family tailor sewed for her. Her heart pounded when her mother’s sister, Nazneen took her and her 3 sisters, Malak, Sadia, and Safia on covert missions to movies because their religious father wouldn’t allow it. She still loved every second of it. She spent time with friends and her assorted relatives who seemed to comprise half of Nairobi. Her brothers Aftab, Ismail, Asim, Jalil, and Tameez contributed to all the commotion in the house with their running, their truck racing, and their G.I. Joes. Mumtaz was closest to Aftab because he was the oldest, and they read the same books. She relished spending afternoon tea conversing with him about a book. The rest of her brothers were younger than she and far less interesting. She still loved them, despite them being boring and silly.
Her family had wealth and the respect of the community. One day, it all came crashing down. Her father caught the flu. But then the flu wouldn’t go away. At one point, he couldn’t get out of bed. It seemed almost as soon as the doctors told them it was pneumonia it had taken him. The wealth and the respect they once had went with him. You see, contrary to the teachings of Islam, not many truly respect a widow, especially when that widow can’t read anything but the Quran. To some, the only thing worth reading for a woman. So, when people who she thought loved her family took whatever her father had left behind, Mumtaz’s mother could do nothing.
Her mother, Jia was a beautiful, angelic woman who rarely raised her voice. She didn’t have to. She was generally beloved so even the most hardened person would listen to what she had to say. Despite being a widow who was swindled out of her due, she had not much to say after her husband died. Her focus had to be on taking care of her children. The rest Allah would take care of because he sees everything, as she said often.
Allah saw many things during this time. He saw Mumtaz’s mother cry in her room at night after all her children had gone to bed. He saw her sigh and rest her chin in her hands the first time she rented out one of their rooms. He saw her put aside pieces of jewelry her late husband had given her for her daughters’ weddings but pick through what she needed to sell to feed her children. He heard her racing thoughts. Can I feed my children next month? Where will I get the money to fix the hole in the roof? How will I pay for the dowry for 4 daughters with no husband? Allah saw and heard all of these things, but Mumtaz and her siblings never did.
All Mumtaz and her older sister, Malak saw was her mother’s worn expression when they came home from school. Aftab, who was 18, worked so much in the local welding factory to help their mother that he didn’t have the energy to notice. As for her other brothers and sisters, the poor things barely grasped that their father was in heaven, and they couldn’t see him anymore. No one in that house fully understood the weight Jia carried in her heart. As for Mumtaz, she never asked her mother how she felt because she was sorting through her own emotions during this tumultuous time.
She knew she was no longer the daughter of a rich man. She now had to wait at the tailor’s instead of being ushered in before everyone. She had to recycle dresses for weddings, mehndis, and dinners now. She couldn’t have a new one for every occasion.
Neighbors inquiring after their well-being dwindled. Over time, where compassion existed, anxiety about whether or not the poor widow woman was going to ask for help crept in. Proud woman that she was, she never would ask anyone for anything , but they couldn’t be sure.
Mumtaz was already drawn to fashion and sewing. But the change in the family fortune gave her an extra spark to sew the clothes she wanted. As time went on, she grew to love it. She added delicate embroidery to her long shirts and scarves. When she cut blouses out of sari fabric, she would pattern it after the latest style she saw in Filmfare. The first time she made a sleeveless blouse, her mother almost had a meltdown. “Proper Muslim girls didn’t wear those”, she argued. Lucky for Mumtaz, Nazneen told her mother to pipe down because Allah had better things to worry about than women’s bare shoulders. By the time, she was 15, Mumtaz became the family tailor and sewed for a few select friends who she wanted to spend the precious time on. She couldn’t wait to get home from school to get to the sewing machine.
That changed when she turned 16, and Malak turned 17. Their mother looked a little more thoughtful as marriage proposals started flooding in. Jia had always said she didn’t want to marry them off too early. That was when her father was still alive. Like so many things in their lives, that changed too. Unknown to their mother, Mumtaz and Malak knew what was coming when they overheard a conversation between Jia and Nazneen.
“You have to start considering these proposals for Mumtaz, Jia. You’re lucky Malak is already taken care of with the promise you made to Shahnawaz to marry her to his oldest son. Marry them off together. You only have one son who works. Between him and your tenants, how much can you expect to provide for 9 children?”
“I want them to go to school like we always wanted. It’s 1960. Times are different. Girls can at least go to school before they get married. I wanted that for my girls.”
“That was an option when your husband was still alive. It’s easier to provide for 7 children instead of 9. They will be taken care of. We are a respectable family. We will get the best matches for Mumtaz.”
“Nazneen, no matter how much I struggle, I will not sell my daughters to the highest bidder. I will only agree to a proposal if I know they will be treated well.”
Mumtaz and Malak looked at each other. Malak beamed. Shahnawaz was the local shipping magnate and friend of the family. His son, Imtiaz was practically the prince of Nairobi and handsome, too. She was anxious to become a wife, especially the wife of Imtiaz . Mumtaz smiled faintly, happy for Malak.
Mumtaz became thoughtful before she went to bed. She never told her mother or even Malak of the waking dreams she had in the quiet of night. She imagined herself designing clothes for all the high society ladies of Nairobi and being known for her impeccable work.
Aware of the pressure her mother was under and always the “good” girl, she kept her grand notions to herself. When suitable matches would present themselves in their home, she and Malak dressed in their best clothes. Mumtaz looked like Saira Banu from "Junglee." She was a thin wisp of a girl who looked like a rough wind could sweep her away. She reminded people of a fairy which made them gravitate towards her. She was a gore-rang, fair-skinned. That made her top commodity in the marriage stock market.
Jia turned many proposals down for one reason or another. One was wealthy, but too short and fat. Mumtaz would have short and fat children. One wanted to take her to Tanzania. Too far. One sucked his fingers too much as he scooped up his masala with his naan bread. Inwardly, Mumtaz was relieved. She didn’t like any of these men.
Then, one of her school friends, Maliha told her about her cousin coming to visit from Uganda. Maliha was short and brown and much more attractive than she was given credit for. She had sharp features and amber-tinted eyes. Most people didn’t notice because her amber-tinted skin caused them to look past her. Their fair-complexion-obsessed community disregarded Malak due to her wheatish skin tone, too. They reserved their lavish praise for Mumtaz. These slights only emboldened both girls to say what was on their minds. It dawned on Maliha what a good match Mumtaz would be for her cousin, so she told her about him. Then, she gave her mother a nudge to approach Jia.
His name was Raja, and he was the manager of a textile company, which intrigued Mumtaz. Maliha and her mother brought him over for tea. Her first thoughts when she first saw him were not good ones. She had her own ideas, but she was still a product of her community. He’s dark. I don’t want to marry such a dark man. What will our children look like? Then, she sat down and kept her eyes to the ground. It wouldn’t have been proper for her to stare at him like she wanted to.
Malak had no such compulsion. If some man was in her house wanting to take her sister away, she was going to look. Mumtaz kept her conversation between the ladies of the group which included her mother, her aunt, her four sisters, and her friend.
When she and Malak went into the kitchen to make chai, Malak grabbed her by the elbow.
“Did you see how smart he looked? He looks like Manoj Kumar!”
Mumtaz had a crush on Manoj Kumar.
“Really? He’s darker than him, though.”
“Are you serious, Mumtaz? He has an ascot and jacket on. His hair is just like Dev Anand’s. It’s perfect. If you weren’t so simple you would have looked at him a little longer.”
Mumtaz opened the kitchen door slightly. She saw what her sister was talking about. In the middle of her school girl reverie, Raja looked up at her. Her face matched the red in her kameez, her long shirt. She backed away from the door and helped Malak pour the chai.
“I told you,” Malak said with a laugh.
They brought the chai out. Mumtaz kept looking at Raja as she poured the tea. As he sipped it, he complimented it. She smiled and said thank you. It was the first time she spoke to him since he arrived.
“Do you like movies Mumtaz?”
“Yes. Very much.”
He looked over at Jia.
“Auntie, may I take Mumtaz and her sisters to see Mughal-E-Azam tomorrow?”
Malak almost jumped out of her chair. She loved Dilip Kumar. Mumtaz smiled shyly. She was glad Raja was so proper to offer to take her sisters. Jia told him if Mumtaz and her sisters wanted to go, he had her permission.
Mumtaz nodded. Her sisters, especially Malak let out a cry of “Yay!” together. Since Raja was due to return to Uganda in a few days, he arranged to take Mumtaz and her sisters to the movies the following day.
After he left, the house was abuzz with anticipation about the movie.
“I get to see Dilip Kumar play a prince!” Malak said.
“Maliha said it’s the best movie she’s ever seen!” Sadia said.
“Madubhala is my favorite heroine!” Safia said.
Mumtaz smiled as her sisters talked about the movie. She was thinking more about Raja than the movie. His hair really was like Dev Anand’s, and it was perfect. His eyes had an intensity to them that she had never seen. They were a beautiful chestnut, lighter than her dark brown eyes. They stood out against his darker skin, demanding attention. They made her anxious to know more about him. When she thought about looking in them for the rest of her life, she shuddered. No one noticed.
He arrived with Maliha in the early afternoon. Mumtaz, Safia, Malak, and Sadia practically ran out the door. Mumtaz said bye to her mother who was staring at Raja with her arms folded not saying anything. She did manage to respond to Mumtaz’s “Khuda Hafiz” and went right back to staring Raja down. Unaffected, he said, “As-salamu alaykum.” Jia returned his salaams and nodded.
Her sisters almost stopped breathing during the movie. It was the biggest spectacle they had ever seen. Madhubhala’s bold dance that defied an emperor during “Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya”, Why should we be afraid if we have loved? had them gasping. Prithviraj Kapoor’s commanding Emperor Akbar enthralled them. Dilip Kumar’s smoldering Prince Salim caused Malak to nearly choke on her popcorn more than once.
Mumtaz enjoyed the movie, too, but she kept shooting furtive glances at Raja who was doing the same. He asked her many times if she needed anything. She told him she was fine with her soda pop.
“You’re as beautiful as Madhubala,” he said.
She bit her lip and turned her head.
When they all came back at 5:00 pm, they found Jia waiting on the front porch like it was 3:00 am. Even though there were 4 other girls with Mumtaz, she was concerned with the one young man and the damage he could do to her daughter’s reputation. She had to be vigilant as all good Muslim mothers are.
She still had manners, though. She offered Raja and Maliha tea which Raja accepted without a second thought. Mumtaz and Malak made the tea and brought it out to everyone. Before they left, Raja told them his aunt had invited them to dinner the next evening. Jia saw Mumtaz’s eyes widen and her shoulders perk up. She understood her answer had to be yes.
At dinner, Mumtaz talked to him about his textile job, her love for sewing, movies, and many other topics until it was time to leave. They said good night but didn’t arrange another meeting to Mumtaz’s disappointment.
The next day Maliha walked Mumtaz home from school. They had biscuits and talked about the day until it was time for Maliha to leave. Before she did, she handed her a note. It was from Raja. It said:
Think of “m.”
Think of “e.”
Put them together,
You’ve got me.
Know that you have me always.
If we come to your mother with a proposal, will you say yes? Write your answer, and give the note back to Maliha.
She looked up at the sky and sighed. Before she wrote her answer, she thought about what marriage would mean. It meant no more school. No sewing college for her. No chance to be a top designer in Nairobi. No more late-night talks with Malak. No more making chai for Aftab when he came home from work. No more Nairobi. Marrying would mean moving to Kampala with Raja’s family. It also meant less worry for her mother. One less child to provide for.
She looked down at the note, wrote her answer, and folded it. She held it in her hand for a moment. She put it in her school bag and went back into the house.
The day before Raja returned to Kampala, he, his aunt, uncle, and Maliha brought sweets and a proposal. Jia said yes because she liked Raja, and she knew Mumtaz did, too. They decided Mumtaz would finish out the school term, and Raja would return to marry her.
As they made the wedding preparations, various relatives and neighbors gave gifts and invited them for dinners to celebrate the auspicious occasion. Raja’s aunt sent Mumtaz the most beautiful fabric for her wedding dress. Malak’s future mother-in-law, Mona insisted their family tailor make her wedding dress. She was already inwardly seething that her husband still honored the engagement even after Jia’s reversal of fortune. She would be damned if her future daughter-in-law would wear anything less than the best. Although it gave her piece of mind that her daughters were taken care of, Jia pursed her lips when she thought about how she couldn’t even afford her own daughters’ wedding dresses. She only commented on how generous Raja’s aunt and Mona were.
Mumtaz decided to sew her own wedding lehenga. The fabric was a brilliant red with light specks of mirror work. She added a delicate pearl border on the bottom of the kameez and on the sleeves. The dupatta veil was heavy with silver zari work with a silver tinsel border on the edges. She sewed the kameez so it hugged her figure slightly.
When she finished, she stepped back and admired her own work. Then, she paused and thought about what it would have been like to dress the fashionable ladies of Nairobi. She thought about seeing her creations in the Life and Style section of the Daily Nation. She knew she had talent and could really make a go of it. She smiled at the possibility. Now, the only possibility she had was being a good wife and mother. She shrugged her shoulders, hung up, her dress, and stared out the window.
Her wedding day started with a nikaah at her home and ended with a reception with only close friends and family at Bombay Palace, much to Mona’s chagrin. She wanted all of Nairobi there.
Both Mumtaz and Malak were relieved that all of Nairobi was not there. They only wanted to share their day with people they loved. As the elder sister, Malak came to her intended and his family first. When it was time for her to make her entrance, Mumtaz lowered her head under her dupatta. Aftab, Sadia, and Safia led her and Malak to the living room where Raja was sitting with his uncle, his aunt, Imtiaz, Malak, Shahnawaz, and Mona. She caught a glimpse of Raja beaming at her and the intense eyes that stared at her with intense love. In that moment, she knew she could look into those eyes for the rest of her life.
Like Madhubala said, “Why should we be afraid if we have loved?”
Until next time... look behind and beyond the veil...