Changing Hands

With great difficulty, they lowered Fathma’s corpse into her grave. Nobody who attended her funeral had a tear to spare. Except for little Khalid, Fathma’s five year old son. He stood there leaning next to his grandmother, sobbing quietly. 

Fathma, who was just 25 when she died of cardiac arrest, was morbidly obese. She was the youngest of eight children to Hashim and Haleema Al Buraidi, and was 12 years younger than her preceding sibling. Her father was a renowned Saudi socialite, her mother was the only daughter to very rich parents.

The Al Buraidis’ home was a sprawling mansion, situated in one of Riyadh’s affluent communities. The house was always swarming with all sorts of important people, and all sorts of houseworkers. While Hashim Al Buraidi tamed politicians, businessmen and lawmakers in the living room, Haleema ordered maidservants, gardeners and drivers. It was draining work, trying to uphold that small empire that either of them had very little attention to give Fathma. She was raised by the many nannies that came and went in her family.

At eighteen years, she was married to Abdullah. After being married for barely a year to her, Abdullah sought a second wife. “She is like a buffalo, both on the dining table and in bed,” he once joked to his friends at the shisha joint. Fathma was three months pregnant at Abdullah’s second marriage. 

There were very few desirable adjectives that one could use to describe Fathma. She lacked the poise and elegance of what was expected from an Arab woman of high descent. Other women refused to shake hands with her because she was often spotted digging her nose in public. She never sported a smartphone; she never owned a social media account. She was unaware of the modern forms of dandyism which had so clutched the Arab society by its underbelly. 

She lacked the fierce possessiveness that was required of married women. That is why she never protested when Abdullah told her that he wanted to marry a second woman. She agreed with readiness, which other women did with reluctance. 

She was devoid of ambition, even when patriarchy was the softest it had ever been to ambitious Arab women.

Then what is her story, one might ask? Her story begins with the birth of her son. Khalid came out after nine hours of labour. Fathma experienced a genuine sense of wonder and could feel a huge wave of emotions wash over her when she held him for the first time. Khalid was subject to some outstanding acts of diligence from her part, which surprised everyone who looked on.

Despite her adoration for her son, she was a lax mother. She was well behind in her duties as a caretaker, so much so that her mother hired a nanny to cater to his infant needs. Her own sheer size made it laborious for Fathma run behind him when he became a toddler. Khalid grew without any kind of discipline, and had very brash manners. Lightweight as he was, he could spread destruction wherever he went. His Indonesian nanny would curse her own life while trying to wrangle him away from fist fights with other children.

Fathma was blissfully blind to Khalid’s unruliness. She was selective in how she wanted to coexist with him. She loved playing with him under the lush bougainvillea that grew in the courtyard. Even though she could barely move, she laughed and cheered behind him as he did his somersaults and his sprints. 

“My sweet son, you are a hero! You will become the next.. What’s his name? Hussain what?” She would ask Momina the nanny. Momina would give her an empty smile.

When Khalid cried for reasons that were varied, Fathma would cry with him. She even demanded Abdullah to buy him a smartphone so that he could play and watch videos as much as he wanted.

She shared Khalid’s best moments, and stayed out of his worst. Which was why Khalid associated his mother with all that was merry. Even when he wreaked havoc with other people, he was sincerely at his best boyish behaviour with his mother.

The day that Fathma died, Khalid felt a kind of eerieness engulf the house. Though the adults customarily kept the news away from him, he came to know of it from his six year old cousin sister Dalal.

“Your mother died today. She died because she was fat. I think she is going to hell because my mother says that she is an idiot” Dalal said matter-of-factly. Needless to say, Khalid sprung on her and attempted to decrown her of her hair.

Momina rushed over and pulled him away. He fell limp into her arms, crying. Khalid, for the first time ever, cried in the arms of someone other than his mother. His mind was too small to grasp the permanence of death, but he felt like something had been taken away from him.

After the funereal rituals were over, Khalid sat quietly under the bougainvillea, picking mindlessly at its dust covered flowers that almost touched the ground. The gassy smell of eucalyptus wafted through the afternoon air. A friendly pigeon fluttered down by his side. It cooed and danced around him, until a shadow that approached from behind scared it away.

Abdullah had slowly walked up behind Khalid, the afternoon sun forming a blazing crown over his head. Khalid looked at his father intently, his expression a mix of confusion and hope. Abdullah studied his first born; they were mirror reflections of each other. The high forehead, the handsome nose, thin lips and enormous ears. 

The stillness of the scene sent Abdullah into a moment of deep thought. He had two other children from his second wife, but neither of them bore such resemblance to himself. Now when he has seen Khalid up close, he feels for the very first time that he has sown a seed. A sense of pride emerged in his heart, inadvertently tinged with narcissism. 

“Come,” he said to the child.

He held Khalid’s hand, and made his way to his car. 

Preordained Ties

“They say everyone who looks into their family history will find a secret sooner or later,” Yusuf said simply, looking up from his book. He had been engrossed in reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code this whole weekend. He finally had gotten his hands on the popular book. Only ten years too late. 

As I lay down his favorite biscuits with tea, I took a long look at Yusuf. He had his teeth clenched. I briefly remembered how gripping the book was.  

I went back to my laptop. I opened my email folder and found the email I had been anticipating for the past one month.

“They’ve replied,” I said. I was afraid to make apparent the excitement in my heart.

“What’d they say?” he asked.

It was the adoption agency. They sent a mail asking us to meet with the orphanage head next week. As bland as the email sounded, I liked to think that the orphanage was happily ready to give us the child. But of course, that would be reaching too far at this stage.

The following week, we dressed up and left our flat in order to reach the orphanage an hour earlier than our appointed time. 

Yusuf was driving. I was lost in thought. My stomach was rumbling. I was tensed about how our meeting would go, and all the things that could go wrong.

“Maybe we should start looking for our birth parents,” Yusuf suggested.

“Don’t be silly.”

“Why not? It would be good to speak of a family lineage to the child when we get him.”

“Wonderful. I can’t believe you are saying this.”

He looked perplexed.

“Okay, let’s assume they are still alive and not dead already. Firstly, why would you want to search for people who didn’t want us in the first place. Secondly, how will you search among one billion other people?” I asked, without containing my annoyance.

“You can’t make such judgments. Just because we ended up in orphanages doesn’t mean our parents didn’t want us. Maybe they couldn’t afford to look after us. Orphanages are meant to give safe environments for children. And to your second question, we can always segregate the population according to age. And maybe narrow our search down to the locality of our orphanages.”

“Yusuf, we both are living examples of the fact that lineages don’t make a person who he is. It is the experiences and the people around him who makes him who he is.”

“Yea. I’m just curious, though.”

“Also, nobody has social security numbers here like in the U.S. You just can’t go to a database and find people,” I said. I was trying to crush his every last hope.
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Yusuf was adopted by a travelling couple from the U.S. An american man of South Indian origin and his Irish wife had come to meet him at the orphanage. He was seven years old then.

The man had a hearty smile, and kept looking at his beautiful wife. The first impression Yusuf had gotten from her was that she seemed nonchalant about the whole deal. The three flew back to U.S. after fetching Yusuf a passport and a visa.

Having been very self-sufficient, Yusuf got by with the very little support he got from his adoptive parents. When he was sixteen, his mother suddenly left his father for another man. His father fell into the habit of heavy drinking. 
One night, his father approached his room and stood at the door in drunken stupor. ” That whore left me. Why do I need you anymore?” he said. And threw the empty liquor bottle at Yusuf before collapsing onto the ground. Yusuf packed his bags and left the next day to lodge at his friend’s place.

We met through a mutual friend when he had come to Mumbai for a holiday. We got to know each other. A certain kind of kinship developed between us, mainly after knowing that we both grew up without knowing our real parents. 

Ever since I can remember I grew up in the house of Geeta Shukla with twenty other little girls. Geeta Amma was a widow who dedicated her life and her home to children like us who had no one to be looked after by. Aayimma, an old woman who cooked and cleaned for us also lived with us.

None of us were interested in our past. We were already happy in believing that Geeta Amma was our mother. But sometimes, one of us would be overtaken by curiosity and would ask Aayimma how they ended up in this house. We knew that Aayimma had always been around, and knew the secrets to our pasts. I asked her once, and she told me that one night a stranger came and left me at the doorstep. I was just a year old and I was sleeping. Geeta Amma never called behind the stranger, and lifted me up like somebody had sent her a courier. 
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We arrived at the orphanage and were directed to the head matron’s room. She beamed at us and asked us to sit. She ordered coffee for the both of us and called for the attender to bring the child.

“Yusuf, Nargis, meet Isa,” the matron said and motioned at Isa to come closer. 

He had curly hair and olive skin. He smiled at us and wasn’t shy to show the cavities on his teeth. He was just two years old. His roundish face was already making my heart burst. He looked nothing like the either of us. Perfect.
I looked at Yusuf and I found tears glistening at the corner of his eyes. I could see he was trying to say something to the child, but couldn’t because of the lump in his throat. 

I waved at Isa. He gave me a semi wave without lifting his arms. We spent the afternoon with him in the courtyard. Isa was just learning how to talk. And I enjoyed how he would take ages to speak a word, trying to perfect it as much as he could.

We left without wanting to leave Isa behind. We wanted to take him with us as soon as possible. The matron assured us that it was just a nominal visit for us to get closer to the child. Nevertheless, she said that more such visits would be needed before Isa actually relocates to our house. I decided that I would come everyday to see him.

As we got on our ride back home, Yusuf said like he had an epiphany, “You are right. Let’s not search for our real parents. I think the universe wants us to form a family without being tied to each other by blood. That is why we have had so much difficulty conceiving a child. For some of us, the secret starts at who our real families are. A secret that isn’t worth being revealed, right?”

“Right,” I said, with a peck on his cheek.

An Act Of Redemption

She turned on the shower to let ice cold water wash over her bare body. Even as she struggled with the initial breathlessness, she held her head still. She wanted to know how it felt. She bent and sat down on the tub floor. She folded her knees upward and hugged her self tight. She shut her eyes.

“Its all your fault!” – the words of her distraught husband rang in her ears. She opened her eyes suddenly. She turned off the shower and sat there, sobbing profusely.

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She didnt even know when she had slept off in the tub. Her nose was blocked from the cold. Her hair was half dry. She picked herself up, toweled herself dry and put on her clothes

She sat on her bed. It felt like she hadn’t any energy left. She couldn’t rest either. Sleeplessness and undernutrition left her face hollow. Her relationship with her husband kept getting worse day after day. He couldn’t forgive her. He wouldn’t even look at her face. But saving her marriage was the last thing on her mind.

Because memories of her love kept haunting her. His smell. His laugh. His touch. His unkempt hair. His yearning eyes. Her grief knew no bounds. 

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It was just 2 months ago that a phone call had changed her life. She was bathing her one year old son in his tub. She carefully filled the tub upto three inches of water and put him in along with his favorite rubber ducky. Her phone rang in the living room. She had been applying for jobs and expected it to be an employer. 

“Mommy’ll be right back!” she said rushing towards the phone.

“Hello..” she said tracing her steps back to the bathroom.

“Hello good morning! Is this Zoya Siddique?” A polite female voice.

“Yes”

“Hi Zoya. I’m Sharon calling from IPR Publishing. You had applied for the role of Junior Editor at our company website, right? Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?”

Zoya gulped a big one. She hadn’t expected a call from IPR. She stood still trying to remember the paragraph that she had learnt by rote. She spoke about her education, amateur trysts during her college years, her attempts at freelancing, and that short job in a small company. She tried hard not to sound like she was blurting it out. Unknowingly, she had even wrapped herself with the curtain in the corridoor.

“Great! We would like to see you for an interview tomorrow at 12 pm. I will send you a location map to your email address. Thank you very much.”

“You are welcome”. Zoya set down the phone. She went into the kitchen absentmindedly, opened the fridge and stared inside for a minute. She mulled over the long break she had taken from her career, and how desperate she was to get back. Then she suddenly remembered that she had left her son in the tub.

She rushed to the bathroom. At the doorstep, she saw the tub but she couldn’t find him. There was no sound. She inched towards the tub clasping her chest. What she saw beat the breath out of her lungs.

He lay in the water, face down. His rubber ducky rested on the small of his back. Her knees felt weak. She bent to pick her baby’s still body. Without breathing, she set him on her lap and tried to administer CPR. The baby did not move. She shook him slowly at first, and then wildly. She called out his name many times.

His eyes did not open.

Putting the lifeless baby on her shoulder she called her husband. Ashkar rushed home and took the baby to the hospital. The whirlwind that ensued left their small family broken forever. Their only child, the meaning of their marriage, was dead.
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Zoya lay on her bed staring at the ceiling. She thought about the gathering at her little boy’s funeral. She clearly remembered how some relatives had given her accusing looks. Even now there were phone calls of curious people that poured in. Most people did not care to hide the shock and dismay in their voices when they heard about the cause of death.
She also thought of how drastically Ashkar had changed, right in front of her eyes. How many days had he gone to office with bloodshot eyes. He spoke nothing; except for that one argument they had one day. He slept on the sofa. Some days he never came home. 
When will this misery end? Zoya wondered amidst tears. It never will. She lost her son to death, now she will lose her husband to silence.

As if in a daze, she slowly got up and went to the kitchen. The scraping knife lay in the drawer. She went to the bathroom and filled the bathtub with water. When it filled halfway, she immersed herself in it. She slit open both her wrists uptil her elbows. And she lay down expectantly.

As the blood gushed out, Zoya felt oddly relaxed. She felt all her pain exit her body.

“Mommy’s coming, Ayaan” she whispered before slowly losing herself. She dreamt of herself emerging from a river bank and her son toddling towards her to pull her out.

The water in the tub turned crimson. Zoya drowned in her own pain, hoping it will atone for everything.